Never Let Her Slip Away

Been obsessed with this 70s song that I heard Dave Grohl talk about on Marc Maron’s WTF? podcast. The melody is crazy, it’s really challenging and fun to learn how to sing – especially since I need to transpose it to another key. Usually I think of the song for the title of a post after I’ve written the post, but I was just working on that song, so it’s on my mind.

So – Darren Walker is the new head of the Ford Foundation. Interesting that they chose someone in-house. As a colleague was saying earlier today, nice to have it be recognized that philanthropy is a real profession, and that having past experience in it is valuable for a foundation head. Often, foundation boards look outside the sector for expertise. Darren’s been embedded in big foundations like Ford and Rockefeller for more than 10 years. Will be very interesting to see how this plays out.

Part of the challenge for a foundation leader is understanding the parameters of what you can and can’t do – and bringing your board along with you. This is the challenge for a philanthropic insider – we have shared assumptions and jargon and a shared theory of change. But as I’ve been thinking about more and more lately (inspired by Patti Patrizi’s work on this topic), assessing strategy is about understanding how well it reacts to and builds upon the context in which it’s formulated.

There are two respects in which realism is needed: one is about the complexity of the context you’re trying to change. And another is about the full range of tools at your disposal. My refrain lately is that foundations do less than they can (they don’t take enough advantage of convening, advocacy, communications, field building, etc.) but that they reach for more than they can grasp (their theories of change aren’t grounded enough in reality). Boards can unfortunately be a source of both of these shortcomings. It falls to the chief executive, the board chair, and the senior staff to engage the board in a frank discussion of what can realistically be expected of these interesting and peculiar entities that get most of their work done by proxy.

These are some of the challenges Darren and his colleagues who run foundations face. Now…how to tie in that song title? Who’s the “her”? Um….how about Athena, the goddess of wisdom? Yeah, that’s the ticket. Keep her owl on your shoulder. Mazel tov.

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