#FailEpic, continued

August 7th, 2015

I appreciate the lively response to my last post asking why it’s so difficult to talk about failure in philanthropy. Commenters brought up important points, including that it can be difficult to decide when failure has actually happened – when do you know to throw in the towel? – and that it’s not just admitting failure but learning from it that generates insight and improvement.

I would also note an incisive piece in Nonprofit Quarterly assessing the failure of the social impact bond designed to reduce juvenile recidivism on Rikers Island. Cohen and Zelnick rightly point out that what is being hailed as a partial success – that because the program did not hit its targets, taxpayers did not have to pay for it – masks a more complex reality. Recidivism was not reduced (no upside there), and taxpayer dollars were tapped in the form of in-kind time by city officials. This example reinforces one of the points made by a commenter on my original post: what counts as failure depends on who’s doing the telling, and when.

I see two strands of conversation worth pursuing, given the interest my original post has generated as part of an overall mini-trend toward more reckoning with failure in philanthropy.

One is to explore what it looks like to have candid conversations between funders and nonprofits about real issues of execution and responsibility (on all sides!) in a context beyond the one-on-one grant relationship. I come to this with an instinct that a more public version of such conversations would be salutary, but also deep wariness about doing it in a way that’s constructive instead of harmful.

  • Are there stages by which such conversations evolve? Do you need to start with self-reflection, then within your own organization, then within a trusted network of peers, then more publicly? That’s an awful lot of steps.
  • Perhaps the best starting place is not talking about failure within a particular grant relationship, but in the context of a topic of shared interest in which the participants don’t have a direct stake. One can imagine a study group dedicated to reviewing examples of initiatives that have failed, and seeking to generate and apply insight from them – with an audience of funders and nonprofits who aren’t part of that field. Might that be a less threatening way to get started?
  • Because trying to have a conversation within a field about what worked and what didn’t is incredibly difficult. I think about the “four pillars” strategy in the immigration reform movement, which national funders and nonprofits developed together after a failed attempt to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2006-07. They analyzed why they lost and how they could overcome those disadvantages, and then moved resources and effort toward filling those gaps. What makes cases like that possible? Where else does this happen?

The other strand of conversation worth pursuing is to ask what it looks like within an organization, and specifically a foundation, to be open to acknowledging, learning from, and acting on failure. What values and motivations need to be in place? Who are the change agents and culture bearers? How do incentives need to change? Are there particular structures or systems that make it easier to learn from and act on failure? What do a higher risk tolerance and a culture of inquiry look like in practice? I feel like we know a lot about this in the field, but the threads of conversation aren’t necessarily organized.

  • Part of the challenge is, who owns failure within the institution? In other words, who’s responsible for identifying it, naming it, lifting it up, creating a safe space in which to discuss it, making sure meaning is derived, and then following through on application of that insight? Those responsibilities fall across a number of function – evaluation, HR, programs, senior leadership, board. What role should be the steward or the shepherd ensuring that those functions are integrated in pursuit of mining improvement from failure, and what resources or tools does that person or team need?

Thanks again to all have engaged on this topic, and to the organizations that have begun hosting conversations among funders about being more open about failure. Do the strands of conversation I suggest above seem relevant, and worth pursuing? What kinds of spaces could we create for more authentic funder-nonprofit dialogue? And how can we get clearer about the organizational culture needed to support openness about failure?



July 24th, 2015

At three recent philanthropy gatherings*, I’ve heard open discussions of failure in grantmaking strategy and execution. The plural of “anecdote” is not “data,” but I’m heartened by this mini-trend.

Why is it still so hard to talk about failure in philanthropy?

  • There’s no incentive. Under what circumstances is one encouraged to fail? Working out, playing sports, rehearsing for a performance – these are all activities where you’re meant to try something new, see how it goes, fix what didn’t work, and try again. You get immediate signals that tell you what’s not working, and often someone is there to tell you what to do instead, or how to do better. What’s crucial in those cases is that you’re not alone, and that there is someone in the role of spotter – observing your performance with a frame of reference of how to do it better, giving you timely feedback on how to improve. And you can see the results of your improved performance. Signals about performance in philanthropy travel much more slowly, if at all, and the roles are not nearly as clear. As discussed in a prior post, most foundations are minimally staffed, so there’s not a lot of space for an HR function. And most program staff are recruited for their content expertise, not because they’re good managers. So you can’t count on there being a spotter for you within your foundation. Don’t get me wrong, people within the foundation do pay attention to what you’re doing, and you are called to account if you don’t follow the rules. But those rules aren’t necessarily set up to support performance or performance improvement. Which brings up another point…
  • There are disincentives, real and imagined. Boards are often risk-averse. (But what exactly are they worried about?) Senior leadership may be launching a new initiative that they’ve had to persuade the board or outside stakeholders is worth taking on, and they don’t want to give ammunition to their critics. (But is anyone actually paying attention?) There are internal cultures of perfectionism. (But what are the actual consequences of imperfection?) The audience with whom you’re sharing may not understand what it takes to make a good grant, and will take your failure out of context. (But what’s so bad about having to explain yourself?)
  • There’s not enough context. Foundations are not good about telling the story of their work. On the one hand, you don’t want to brag, when it’s really the nonprofits to whom you provide support that are doing the hard work. On the other hand, if no one ever has any understanding of where you’re coming from, and why you operate the way you do, then it becomes especially hard to talk about when things don’t go right. If the first time people are hearing about you is when something goes wrong, you’re going to get an unsympathetic reading, and you’ll be on the defensive from the get-go.
  • It’s not easy for anyone. Let’s not underestimate the fragility of the human ego: it stings when something doesn’t work out, especially when, like a lot of foundation folks I’ve met (and am), you’re a high achiever with a passion for this work who feels lucky and privileged to play this kind of role.
  • The stakes are comparatively high. I owe this insight to Phil Buchanan from CEP: failure in philanthropy is not the same as failure in a commercial enterprise, the kind where “fail fast” is a popular mantra. If the newest tech product launch fails, the consequences are not the same as if a social-impact bond working on recidivism among juvenile offenders fails. There’s actually an interesting discussion to be had about the loss of jobs if a business effort fails vs. the failure to receive services if a nonprofit effort fails (how well do we know the service works, etc.), but some other time.

What other reasons are there for why it’s hard to talk about failure in philanthropy? How can we overcome them?

*I note that all three discussions happened in grantmaker-only spaces. There’s value in a trusted network of peers, as my colleague Brian Walsh calls it, that provides a space in which to be more open. I look forward to the day when such conversations can happen in broader public networks.

What would it take to promote a more open discussion of failure in philanthropy? What benefits would that provide?


Don’t Forget the Ark

July 9th, 2015

Last week, I wrote about why there is a structural need for philanthropy infrastructure organizations: because the staff of grantmaking organizations are distributed across many individual organizations, and don’t have a consistent pipeline or curriculum to learn their craft.

A corollary of this structural condition is that it is very difficult to maintain institutional memory. The consequences of this were brought home for me with particular force today as I participated in a quarterly Ford Foundation staff tour of the Rockefeller Archive Center. This remarkable institution, nestled on bucolic hillsides in Hudson County, NY, houses the archives of the Ford, Rockefeller, Russell Sage, William T. Grant, and several other foundations that were established in the early part of the 20th century. They have 115 million pages of material. One hundred and fifteen MILLION pages. The mind reels.

I’m only a little embarrassed to say that I had a shiver of literal awe when we came to the room where these file cabinets are housed:

Ford Foundation grant files, Rockefeller Archive Center

These are the reels of microfilm that contain the grant files of the Ford Foundation from the mid 1950s to the mid 2000s. The data that are in here! The knowledge! The lessons learned! What a treasure.

And yet, like the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, I had a vision of this treasure lost to time. That’s how we’re treating the history of philanthropy. We embark on new strategies without learning what’s been done before. That’s why as Ford is operationalizing our new strategy, we’re including deep dives into our past practice.

So let me make an invitation, particularly to new donors and those setting up foundations. Check out the website of the Rockefeller Archive Center.  Better yet, try using the search function with terms that are relevant to your work. The lovely people at the Center can help you get a hold of relevant materials that you pull up. They can even PDF things for you if you’re not able to come visit. As I learned from a stimulating afternoon of conversation, they’re also extremely informed about the contents of the archive and the history of philanthropy. They can cite, chapter and verse, reports that are relevant to your topic, or name the years in which one of the foundations in the collection went through a major strategy refresh. You’ll come away with a deeper appreciation of how far we’ve and how far we have to go – and with lots of useful reading!

And then, if there are topics around which you think it would be useful to convene scholars of philanthropy who are using the archive, let me know. I’d love to work with you and the folks at the Center to see what we might make happen.

Happy hunting in the archives!

Eternal Recurrence

July 2nd, 2015

Why does organized philanthropy need infrastructure organizations?

For me, the simplest explanation is structural. There are upwards of 100,000 foundations in the U.S. The vast majority of these are small and unstaffed. One of the largest infrastructure organizations by membership is Exponent Philanthropy, what used to be called the Association of Small Foundations. I only bring up their former name to indicate their membership base – it has a median staff size of two. That’s likely an executive director and an admin person.

So what you have are a relatively small cluster of foundations with staffs, and then a somewhat larger cluster of foundations with minimal staffs, and then a long tail of foundations with no staffs at all.

Focusing on the first two clusters, I’m going to hazard an educated guess that there are between 12,000 and 15,000 foundation staff in the U.S. I looked into this trying to find a more solid number, and the best estimate I could track down is in the Council on Foundations’ Grantmakers Salary and Benefits Report. The 2014 version ($) includes data on 9,476 full-time foundation employees from 964 foundations whose annual giving totaled $13 billion in 2013. This amount represents roughly a quarter of all foundation giving that year, so I assume that these foundations represent a significant part of the first cluster and a decent-sized part of the second cluster. The median staff size of the sample is 5 full-time staff. If Exponent’s membership of around 2,200, which has a median staff size of 2, represents a good chunk of the second cluster, then I think it’s fair to say that somewhere between 12,000 and 15,000 foundation staff is the right number. The number of program staff, folks responsible for doing the bulk of grantmaking, is much smaller. In the CoF sample, there were 1,069 reported full-time program officers within the sample of 964 foundations (not all of whom reported having program officers or specified the number of them – and program officers aren’t the only position that make grants). So the effective number of grantmakers is almost surely less than 10,000.

Where do those people learn how to do their jobs? Philanthropy is not a profession like the law or medicine – there’s not a standard curriculum, specialized schools (apart from a small handful at this point, but they’re not designed to function like a law school does), certification processes, or industry standards (with specialized exceptions like the National Standards for Community Foundations). We have one peer-reviewed journal (The Foundation Review, which, full disclosure, I had a piece published in it earlier this year), and several professional conferences.

What we don’t have is a standard path for entering the field, or a standard procedure by which to learn how to be good at it. There are resources like Essential Skills & Strategies for New Grantmakers (in which I’ve taught in the past) and the Grantmaking School, but these are voluntary and not at scale. I’m not opining what we should or should not have at this point, just observing the structure of our field.

So, take these two realities – a not-that-large population of grantmakers spread across many different institutions without a lot of concentration in any one institution (apart from a relatively small set of exceptions); and a field that is not set up as a profession with a standardized mode of learning – and what do you get? A field of people hungry for connection who can’t get what they need inside their own institutions. That’s why there are infrastructure organizations – because where else are grantmakers going to learn from their peers, identify and learn to apply best practices, get advice and mentorship, find a career path, hone their leadership skills, collaborate for greater impact, get in touch with trends and issues, and cultivate a collective voice on issues of the day? Our field is not set up to afford most grantmakers the resources to do that within their own organizations. So they have to look outside, and that’s where infrastructure groups come in.

There’s a whole separate set of questions about the ecosystem of infrastructure organizations – number, function, balance, health, etc. But to engage that conversation, I think it’s useful to start with an understanding of why there’s a need for them in the first place. And from what I can tell, that need is, at a minimum, structural.

What do you think? I’m essentially saying that there will always need to be infrastructure organizations as long as the field is structured this way, but is that a fair assumption? Are there other ways to provide the connection, learning, and networks that infrastructure groups offer? Do we need to think differently about the highly decentralized nature of foundations? Do we need to think differently about establishing a more structured pipeline? What am I not taking into account?

Thanks, and Happy July 4th!

Time for a Reboot

June 25th, 2015

It’s a tremendous honor to have joined the Ford Foundation in April as the Program Officer for Philanthropy. I’ve long been an admirer of the foundation’s reach and approach, and when I first moved to New York, I lived a block from its headquarters – so this building has long loomed large for me, both figuratively and literally.

And it’s a very exciting time to be here, as so many things are changing. Our fearless president Darren Walker recently announced how our focus is shifting to disrupting the drivers of inequality, and that we’ll be doubling our commitment to unrestricted support. These are big shifts for a nearly 80-year-old organization, and it feels like the place will look very different by this time next year. These types of major change initiatives are never easy, and the hardest part lies ahead, when we translate the new strategies into a new way of operating. But this place is full of brilliant, dedicated people who are fun to work with, and I’m hopeful.

My job is to “program” the Philanthropy portfolio, a term we use around here that I hadn’t heard before. It means articulating a point of view and developing a strategy in collaboration with my boss Hilary Pennington, the VP for Education, Creativity, and Free Expression, and then deciding what grants to make, and what beyond-the-grant activities to carry out – convening, research, advocacy, public education, technical assistance, etc. We’re tremendously lucky here at Ford to be able to play an active role in the fields we support. But that also means a lot of responsibility! In talks at the JAG Unity Summit and the Minnesota Council on Foundations last year, I described a responsible funder role as meaning that you’re sensible, reliable, and accountable. Time to walk the talk.

The tagline I inherited, based on strategy work done before I arrived, is “more resources, better deployed, in service of the social justice causes Ford champions.” Having written my fair share of such taglines from my days as a strategy consultant, I can say this is quite a good one – it gives both direction and latitude. So my immediate task is to flesh out that tagline into a strategy, start making grants, and doing beyond-the-grant work.

The exciting part of this job is that the field of philanthropy is evolving VERY quickly, so there are a lot of opportunities to support really interesting stuff. The daunting part is that the field of philanthropy is evolving very quickly, so there are a LOT of opportunities to support really interesting stuff – and we’ll have to make choices. As my friend and former TCC Group colleague Jared Raynor likes to say, “it’s not a strategic decision if you don’t leave a good option on the table.”

I’m reading the book “Creativity, Inc.,” by the head of Pixar Animation, Ed Catmull. It’s his description of the process by which Pixar has sought to create a sustainable culture of creativity and excellence. Given that their latest movie, “Inside Out,” just had the biggest opening ever for an original property, I’d say they’re making a pretty good go of it, especially after a rough few years (“Cars 2,” anyone?). One of Catmull’s mantras within Pixar is, “all our movies suck at first.” They have a process by which those efforts, which are driven by their creators rather than sourced externally, are continually made better through structured, focused, regular feedback.

That sounds like fun. So, let’s try it. I’m going to repurpose this blog, which for the past five years I used as a personal opinion platform about the relationship between philanthropy and democracy, to be a scratch pad and platform for feedback on my emerging thinking about Ford’s Philanthropy program. I encourage you to ask questions, make comments, interrogate my assumptions, offer alternatives, or even just say, “yeah, okay, that wouldn’t be entirely un-useful to the field.” Together, we can go, as Catmull puts it, “from suck to not-suck.”

In the two and a half months since I started this position, I’ve had 105 meetings, 71 of them external to the foundation; attended more than a dozen convenings, conferences, workshops, or webinars; done three speaking engagements; been featured in an article ($) about careers in philanthropy; and had a post published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review opinion blog about partnerships between individual and institutional donors. I’m grateful to everyone involved in those conversations, which have been enormously helpful as I’ve identified some initial directions to explore. In future posts, I’ll share some of the ideas that have been emerging and ask for your feedback. The topics may include:

  • Broadening the scope of donors interested in social justice
  • The expressive dimensions of philanthropy, or, the ways people use money to build the world they want to see
  • What “integrative leadership” in philanthropy might look like
  • A fundamental issue at the nexus of philanthropy and impact investing
  • Philanthropy and cultural narratives that promote exclusion (one of Ford’s five drivers of inequality)
  • What it means to build and share power through philanthropy

When I was writing my dissertation long-distance in 2007-08, I had a blog called “It Takes a Village to Write a Dissertation,” on which friends would volunteer to monitor a week’s worth of daily posts on my progress. That, and having a writing space 12 minutes from my apartment, were the only way I got the dissertation done. I’m hoping a similar magic can work here. So, you know, no pressure or anything, but I’m counting on you all, okay?

Let’s start with a question. Given Ford’s focus on disrupting the drivers of inequality, and the Philanthropy program’s charge to help move “more resources, better deployed, in service of the social justice causes Ford champions,” where would you start? Who would you talk to, what would you read, where would you visit? I’ve done a lot of each of those things, but I’m looking for what I’ve missed.

Or, if you prefer, try this one: Where can Ford make the biggest contribution with our Philanthropy program given our focus? Keep in mind that grants will be made in the U.S. and will focus on philanthropy (as opposed to the broader nonprofit sector).

Thanks in advance for traveling this path together. Here’s to happy trails ahead!

The Long and Winding Road

November 13th, 2014

Coming off a great, dizzying six weeks on the speaking and conference circuit, some of which I’ve tracked here. Philanthropy New York, Philanthropy Ohio, the community foundations conference, Minnesota Council on Foundations, and more – for this ambivert, lots of socializing, plus downtime in Cleveland, Minnesota, Austin, and Maryland to recharge. Thanks to everyone who hosted me and came out for sessions.

Here’s what I’m taking away from my time on the road:

  • Everything old is new again. The talk of the community foundations conference was a panel in which a speaker showed the agenda from the same conference…in 1925 (!)…and it was…wait for it…practically the same agenda as 2014. It’s one thing to have perennial problems in philanthropy. It’s another to willfully or blithely ignore history. I had cause recently to revisit Joel Orosz’s classic “The Insider’s Guide to Grantmaking” from 2000 – it’s great! Full of humane thinking and practical insight. Should be required reading. Not to mentions perennials from GrantCraft, Center for Effective Philanthropy, and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. My boss keeps telling me to read “The Golden Foundations” by Waldemar Nielsen. What’s on your philanthropy required-reading list? In grad school, back in the early 2000s before you could just store these on Google Docs, in my polisci doctoral program we had a CD-ROM (later a thumb drive) of summaries and outlines of classic texts prepared by students in years past that got passed down to the next class when it was time to study for qualifying exams. We could use something like that in philanthropy, open-sourced. Anyone up for jumping in with me? If it already exists, all the better – let’s build on it.
  • Going it alone is for suckers. At work, we’ve been emphasizing the importance of an ecosystem approach to strategy and capacity building. That message is really resonating with all kinds of audiences. Increasingly, anyone’s point of departure in the social-impact space has to be, what is my strategy in relation to the strategies of other actors in my space? This forces you to think about who those actors are. What capacity do I as a funder need to be a good partner with nonprofits, companies, government, intermediaries, etc.? I’m very conscious that my first point applies very well to my second, i.e., that this is not a new problem, and would welcome good sources on this.
  • Go small to go big. My talk at Minnesota Council on Foundations was about “Scaling Our Work for Greater Impact.” I argued that funders should focus on playing their roles in the social ecosystem responsibly, meaning that they’re reliable, sensible, and accountable. By getting hold of those basics, “going small,” they’re better positioned to “go big” by leveraging their impact through collaboration. Again, this is the point of departure, not just an add-on or something it’d be nice to have.
  • What’s in your utility belt? Oh, Alec Baldwin. Ostracized from TV and print, and now heckled off the agenda of the Independent Sector conference. I mean, it’s not like he didn’t bring it on himself. He’s also been replaced as the pitchman for Capital One credit cards – for a few years, it was his gravelly voice that intoned, “What’s in your wallet?” A version of that question is relevant for funders – what tools are in your utility belt, and what are you using beyond the grant to achieve impact. This one’s definitely not a new question! But I see lots of interest on it out there, and it’s tied to the capacity question – what tools should you choose, and how do you prioritize those based on the ability you have on staff and can either build or buy? Research, advocacy, convening, advancing difficult dialogues, mission investing – the list goes on. So much opportunity, so little understanding of how to prioritize based on mission, need, and capacity.

For funders, how do you think about your nongrantmaking roles? Are you clear on what roles are a best fit for your in your ecosystem? What perennial questions do you find yourself revisiting?

Behind the Curtain

October 23rd, 2014

Lots to talk about from the community foundations conference earlier this week; I’ll get into that next week. The questions that interest me at work of internal foundation capacity, non-grantmaking roles, and funder strategy in an ecosystem context were all weaved through the discussions.

In the meantime, here’s my new post on Philanthropy New York about a session I recently did on “So You Want to be a Philanthropic Advisor?” with Caroline Woodruff of Bessemer Trust.

Say Say Say

October 16th, 2014

Busy month on the speaking and conference circuit. This Friday, I’m at Philanthropy Ohio talking about “Making Strategic Philanthropy Stick.”

On October 31, in what is hopefully not a trick for the audience, I’m speaking at the Minnesota Council on Foundations annual conference on “Scaling Our Work for Greater Impact.” In that talk, I’m going to focus on tools that funders can use to play responsible roles in supporting collective action, not just from the outside, but from within such efforts. It’s a TED-style talk, short and to the point. Should be fun.

One of the topics I won’t get to cover that’s long been a passion of mine is how philanthropy can be more accessible to underserved communities. Luckily, I was honored to appear on MCF’s Fast Forward podcast series with the always thoughtful Alfonso Wenker to address just this topic. Again, so much to say! Definitely listen to the podcast, but here are a few other talking points on the topic of foundations and diversity, equity, and inclusion that I didn’t get the chance to cover.

  • Question your own assumptions – it’s well-known but bears repeating, foundations live in a bubble with little accountability. So you want to unearth your assumptions about how change happens and who needs to be at the table when decisions are made. This can extend to seemingly little things like language (“grantee partners” vs. “grantees,” for example). Who really has the power in your relationship, you who have the money or they who actually have the direct impact?
    • Now, there’s a difference between questioning your assumptions and questioning yourself. The first is about growth; the second is frankly kind of self-indulgent. It can happen when you take the philanthropy too personally, that other perennial problem of identifying the money as if it were yours. Questioning your assumptions is more like a zen practice, like mindfulness, rather than drama. How do I actually think change is going to happen? If I’m funding work in diverse communities to which I’ve never given before, how will people get to know me? Can I present myself in the same way, assuming the same level of familiarity, as I do in other environments? Does it make sense for me to go in there on my own, or with a partner who’s embedded in the community and respected there?
  • Check in with your gut, why are you doing this? Avoid “ay bendito.” My family’s from Colombia, so this isn’t a saying I grew up with, but in Puerto Rican Spanish, “ay bendito” – “oh, blessed one” – is what you say with a combination of empathy and pity. “oh, you poor thing.” Too many times, I’ve seen diversity approached from an “ay bendito” perspective. “Oh, those poor people.” This goes to questioning your own assumptions. There’s something insidious about observing that when you serve low-income communities, you’re serving “mostly” black and Latino people. The categories we use consciously, start to inform how we think unconsciously; you make that association that black and Latino people are all poor. The numbers about wealth disparity don’t lie, but then we start to make assumptions about whole groups of people that inform how we respond to an individual or an organization that we encounter, and then we get into trouble.
  • Democratize it. I’ve been thrilled to follow from afar the work of the Community Investment Network, which has been fostering African-American giving circles and has just celebrated ten years. But the thing about democracy is that it’s an ideal AND a process: “One person, one vote” AND a whole cadre of volunteer poll workers and neighborhood venues that host voting sites (mine’s in an elementary school). So democratizing philanthropy has at least two dimensions. One is communicating a democratic spirit: anyone can be a giver. The other is diffusing democratic processes of decision-making, so there are polling stations in every neighborhood, school, and church, or analogously, diffusing the mechanisms of thoughtful, effective grantmaking, whether it’s with a few hundred dollars in a giving circle or a $100 million grantmaking budget around a foundation board table. Democracy is about collective public deliberation, but even within philanthropy, which is about collective private deliberation, setting the criteria for allocating philanthropic dollars, and the process of values alignment and consensus building that are involved, are essentially democratic skills, even if they happen away from public scrutiny. That’s the paradox of this field, its simultaneous anti-democratic and democratic tendencies.

Not exactly podcast-friendly soundbites, but there you go. How do you see funders embracing – or not – diversity, equity, and inclusion in your world? What works and what doesn’t about that?

The Power of Love

September 25th, 2014

All through high school, and through my first year of college, I was convinced I wanted to be a clinical psychologist. I wanted to listen to people’s troubles and help them figure out a way to solve them. I was less concerned with the tools (psychology) than with the results (relief of anguish).

Then, fall of my sophomore year of college, I took a friend’s advice and tried out Intro to Political Theory. I can still picture the narrow room in Stetson Hall at Williams College. It had a long, wide wooden table around which maybe twelve people could fit, without much clearance between the backs of their chairs and the wall. The professor sat at the far end of the table, framed by a tall picture window. I arrived late, and the only seat left was at the opposite end of the table. I slunk in and began taking notes. The subject was power.

I found myself scribbling in the margins of my notes: power to, power over, power from, positive and negative forms of power…. A whole world had opened itself to me, and I soon left psychology behind. (Didn’t hurt that I wasn’t very good at it.)

Twenty-odd years later, and if you were to ask me in Spanish what my profesión was, I’d say politólogo – politicologist, or in the parlance of the schools I attended for undergrad and doctoral studies, “political science.” I’ve studied institutional power in various permutations.

But the concern with the relief of anguish has remained. And that’s why I work in philanthropy. Because people are using the power of money, and all that it affords, to make change out of love. I was about to say, “out of love for humanity,” referencing the etymology of “philanthropy,” but I’m too much of a politólogo to think it’s just that. Love of control. Love of prestige. Love of attention. They’re all in there, to varying degrees. I’ve written about the expressive dimensions of the act of giving, and that expression has many dimensions, many of them not particularly noble.

But the love is there, the very human hunger for satisfaction of an emotional need, even if it’s just a sense of order and justice in an upside-down world.

For me, then, philanthropy is a kind of palindrome: love of the power of love. Those two qualities, ever in tension, caught up in each other. That’s what keeps me going in this field.

What motivates you about philanthropy?

P.S. Now just try getting that Huey Lewis song out of your head. You’re welcome.

Brand New Key(s)

September 19th, 2014

At my day job, we just put out a paper that I was involved in, “Ten Keys, Ten Years Later: Successful Strategic Planning for Foundation Leaders.” As much as strategy has and continues to evolve, we find that the fundamentals of strategic planning remain relevant for a wide variety of funders. One sign of this is that one of our most enduringly popular briefing papers is “Ten Keys to Successful Strategic Planning for Nonprofit and Foundation Leaders.” We just had a potential client say that’s how they found us – and it came out more than ten years ago.

So we thought it would be useful to revisit the Ten Keys and see what was the same and what changed. We also decided to focus specifically on funders this time around.

It was pleasantly surprising to see that most of the keys held up. We framed them a bit differently this time around, but the fundamentals remain sound, and easily overlooked.

There are two that receive different emphasis this time around, and they’re topics that are near and dear to my heart. One is about how non-grantmaking tools are no longer just an afterthought, but an integral part of the strategy discussion. And the other is that it’s more important than ever to frame strategy relationally – in terms of the ecosystem in which you’re embedded. If you’re an education funder, your strategy needs to address its relation to the strategy of the school district, the charter school network, other education funders – your strategy is not just yours alone, in other words. Those who get that do better in strategic planning.

What do you think about the updated Ten Keys? Do they ring true with your experience of strategic planning? How relevant do you find strategic planning in today’s environment?