Eternal Recurrence

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!


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4 Responses to “Eternal Recurrence”

  1. Paul Shoemaker Says:

    With admitted bias, Chris, I agree wholeheartedly with “A field of people hungry for connection who can’t get what they need inside their own institutions” as the core motivation. I’ve actually thought about this question off and on for quite awhile. We don’t need to require people to have something like a JD or MBA to practice in this field and yet, I do get frustrated sometimes at the lack of qualifications of some people that get into philanthropy and / or the lack of ongoing education that is “required.”

    I say all this knowing that, at face value, one could have said that about me 17 years ago when I crossed over from the private to nonprofit sector. So I’m partly throwing myself under the bus here. My wife has an MSW and is a licensed mental health therapist. To maintain her LMH license, she has to get a certain amount of CE credits, as with other professions. I’m not in favor of some new bureaucracy to be set up, but I wonder if something along those lines, sort of self-imposed, would be of any value? I do wish there were ways we could “raise the bar” on being a philanthropic professional. There are lots of professions in the world making less important decisions than the 12-15,000 that have a lot more required of them, in order to get constantly better at practicing their profession.

    Not a black and white answer to this, but I like the question, Chris; we’ve wrestled with it at SVP in terms of being a “philanthropist” too … now THERE’S a term with a WIDE range of quality to it! :)

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