Posts Tagged ‘transparency’

Open Sesame

Friday, February 5th, 2016

One of my favorite things to have discovered since joining the Ford Foundation last April to reboot its Philanthropy portfolio is the Fund for Shared Insight. This is a funding collaborative that seeks to advance the research and practice of feedback loops in the nonprofit sector and philanthropy, and to advance foundation openness. Basically, we think it’s really important to listen directly to the people we’re trying to help, AND to USE that feedback to improve practice. That last part is critical – lots of folks gather feedback, but precious few are able to use it, systematically and consistently.

We’re in the midst of our second year with the Fund for Shared Insight, and we’re getting ready to release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for projects that promote greater foundation openness. To walk our own talk, we want to be open about how we’re developing the concepts behind the RFP. We had the great good fortune to meet with a number of excellent organizations working on this issue, and have had a number of rich conversations among collaborative members, which have led us to some thinking that I’m honored to have been asked to share below.

We’re looking for feedback on concepts and language here. Are the ideas clear, does the language communicate effectively, can you picture what a funded project would look like? Do the concepts make sense, do they describe real foundation behavior, are they something worth working on?

You’ll notice that we include a framework for thinking about foundation openness, in a three-column table. We’ve had LOTS of discussion about this. We’ve found that it’s helped advance our thinking, and has stimulated good conversation, but it’s far from definitive. The thing about frameworks is, they’re necessarily distortions of reality. And what we’re clear on is that reality is not as simple as the three-part model we lay out below.

For one thing, different foundations will enter the continuum at different points. Some may start out with what we’re calling “fundamental” openness, and move to what we’re calling “courageous” openness. Others may start out as what we’re calling “closed” foundations, and stay there for perfectly valid reasons (a donor who requires anonymity, for example). For another thing, foundations, particularly larger ones, are complex systems. Some programs within the same foundation may embrace openness to a greater degree than others. How do we judge that foundation’s overall place on the continuum? And so on.

The essential point is, there’s a difference between one-way openness, in which a foundation makes its information available to the outside world, and two-way openness, in which it engages in dialogue with the outside world and is willing to make changes as a result. For some foundations, it’s a huge achievement even to get to one-way openness; as we point out below, nearly a third of foundations with assets over $100 million (that is, pretty big ones) don’t even have a website. For other foundations, sharing by default has become the norm, and they’re pushing themselves to address the power dynamic between funders and nonprofits, or talking candidly about failure. We want to recognize these different forms of openness and encourage conversation and practice that moves foundations toward two-way openness where that makes sense.

All right. That’s a lot of preamble, but we want to be candid about where we are. Since we believe that feedback thoughtfully gathered and applied improves performance, we want to improve our upcoming RFP by getting your thoughts about the language and framework below, which we’ll discuss and decide upon at our upcoming March meeting. Feel free to use the comments section below, or email your thoughts to melinda@fundforsharedinsight.org.

Thanks very much for believing in the power of openness, and for sharing your own insight with us.


 

Increasing Foundation Openness

Draft Concept Paper to Inform a Request for Proposal

2/4/16

Why Increase Foundation Openness?

There are many potential motivations for foundations to be more open. The motivation driving the Fund for Shared Insight’s interest in increasing foundation openness is effectiveness. We hypothesize that in today’s complex, connected world, greater openness among foundations, the nonprofits that they support, and the people that both nonprofits and foundations want to help, is a prerequisite to effectiveness. We think that greater openness enables philanthropy to:

  • Attract and empower good ideas from multiple sources;
  • Facilitate faster testing and learning (including identification and sharing of what works and what doesn’t);
  • Improve nonprofit relationships with funders and among each other;
  • Strengthen collaboration and reduce duplication of effort;
  • Increase public trust; and
  • Build communities of shared

Toward this end, we are planning to release an open request for proposal (RFP) in the spring of 2016 to fund efforts to build upon existing or seed new activities to increase foundation openness in more staffed foundations in the United States. In 2016-17, we expect to provide up to $2 million in grants to promote foundation openness, although all funds may not be expended under the RFP. The grants will be a minimum of $100,000, over either one or two years, to support efforts to increase foundation openness in service of effectiveness.

We are sharing this draft concept paper in the hope that others can provide us with feedback about what is useful and not as helpful about the framework and perhaps suggest a better set of definitions or frameworks for increasing foundation openness.

Background

Fund for Shared Insight (“Shared Insight”) is a collaborative effort among funders that pools financial and other resources to make grants to improve philanthropy. Shared Insight emerged from our belief that foundations will be more effective and make an even bigger difference in the world if we are more open – if we share what we are learning and are open to what others want to share with us, including grantees and the people we seek to help.

Shared Insight aims to do this by providing grants to nonprofit organizations to encourage and incorporate feedback from the people we seek to help; understand the connection between feedback and better results; foster more openness between and among foundations and grantees; and share what we learn.

Fund for Shared Insight is a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Initial funders include the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, The JPB Foundation, Liquidnet, the Rita Allen Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and we welcome other funders to join this effort, which will unfold over several years.

How Do We Define “Foundation Openness”?

We have frankly struggled with how to explain what we mean by “foundation openness.” At this time, our best attempt at defining foundation openness is to characterize two different broad categories as follows:

·        Fundamental Openness. This set of practices involves making information about the foundation’s work publicly available. Often known as “transparency,” it includes practices such as having a web site, posting names of board members and staff, and making public information about grantmaking strategies and grants made. In some cases, fundamental openness may be necessary for pursuing courageous openness.

·        Courageous Openness.[1] This set of practices goes beyond transparency. It entails a deeper transformation of organizational culture to make sharing the default; to be open about failure, evaluation and learning; and to allow external stakeholders to engage meaningfully with the development of strategy, goals, and vision. While fundamental openness is often about the one-way transmission of information, courageous openness is primarily about two-way interaction between foundations and different key stakeholders.

In presenting these two categories, we acknowledge it is too simplistic to define foundation openness as a dichotomy of fundamental vs. courageous openness. We have thought about describing it as a linear process or points along a continuum, however, in reality we know foundation openness is more complex than that. For example, a foundation might be good at listening to stakeholders and acting on what it hears, but not in sharing about its failures. Also, foundations are not typically monoliths. A single foundation may have multiple program areas whereby some programs (because of advocacy reasons, perceived risks to grantees, opposition, etc.) are more or less courageously open than others.

In 2014, through an open RFP process, Fund for Shared Insight supported five organizations for activities designed to support increasing foundation openness. Their efforts included promoting greater adoption of Creative Commons licensing by foundations; encouraging more public dissemination of foundation reports through a centralized hub; producing videos featuring foundation staff sharing about their lessons learned; modeling open philanthropic practices; and investigating foundation CEO views on foundation transparency. We continue to learn from these grants and engage in focused discussion with these grantees and others to help us further define what we mean by “openness”, explain why it is important to philanthropy, and explore how we might encourage more openness among foundations, the nonprofit organizations that they fund, and the people that we all ultimately seek to help.

Through this process Shared Insight honed its views of the differences between closed organizations, organizations embracing fundamental openness, and organizations embracing courageous openness. We recognize that organizations engage in foundation openness at multiple entry points and that the process of becoming more open as a foundation is not as linear as our language might suggest but we offer the figure below as one possibly helpful way of framing the issue[2]:

Foundation Openness Draft Framework[3]

 

  Closed Organization Fundamental Openness Courageous Openness
Type No public communication (black box) Foundation communicates out (microphone) Two-way open dialogue (walkie-talkie)
Potential Benefit  Privacy Transparency, more complete information for grantees and other potential collaborators Foundation decision-making is better informed, leading to better outcomes
Perceived Risk Could lead to public misunderstanding & mistrust Could lead to being inundated with requests, opening foundation to criticism Could force foundations to deal with “hard truths;” could add to cost of doing business; could potentially lead to damaging grantee reputations
Power Dynamics Reinforces status quo Questions status quo Changes status quo
Change Required None Processes Practices & culture
Outputs None Information & solo insight Shared Insight
Web Analog Pre-Web Web 1.0 (Broadcast) Web 2.0 (Social Network)

Currently, some foundations in the U.S. are functioning as closed organizations. For example, according to the Foundation Center, fully 30% of foundations with more than $100 million in assets do not have a website.[4] But a large and growing group of foundations is embracing fundamental openness, and a few are reaching for courageous openness.

Fund for Shared Insight aspires to spark movement of a large number of foundations along the openness continuum, with more foundations embracing fundamental openness and courageous openness over time. The foundations supporting Shared Insight realize that we ourselves are all on various points along the openness continuum (or spiral). We hope to learn and experiment along with many others over the next two years. We are sharing this concept paper with a desire to be humble, collaborative, and focused on learning, and to inform our development of an open RFP in this area in the Spring of 2016.

Footnotes:

[1] We would like to acknowledge our colleagues at Grantmakers for Effective Philanthropy (GEO) for introducing us to the phrase “courageous openness” which has helped clarify our understanding of various approaches to foundation openness.

[2] In our funder collaborative meetings, we have at times envisioned depicting foundation openness as a spiral or ongoing feedback loop with multiple entry points where foundations can work towards both fundamental and courageous openness.

[3] We acknowledge this framework does not address the role of anonymous foundation giving.

[4] We plan on including data from the CEP study on foundation transparency here as additional background and context once the data are no longer embargoed on February 23rd. 

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All of the Feels (#FailEpic, part 3)

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

Why is it so hard to foundations to talk about failure? In the last two posts, and the lively comments therein, we’ve seen a few reasons: lack of incentives, presence of disincentives, lack of context, lack of clarity about when failure has actually happened and who owns it.

There’s a dimension of these reasons on which I want to dig in further, because it’s one we’re not that well set up to deal with in the sector. This became clear to me when I sat in on a local convening of funders talking about how to identify high-impact opportunities. (Another trusted network.) The concept of risk came up, and risk aversion. We dug in on, “risk of what?” What are we afraid will happen? Here are some of the things that came up:

  • Embarrassment: you got something wrong, you made a mistake, you messed up, you did damage
  • Ignorance: looking like you don’t know everything, or enough, about a particular topic or idea or community
  • Damage to relationships: you’ve wasted someone’s time, you’ve let down your colleagues, you’ve made others question your judgment.

These are not the concerns of technocrats! This is emotional stuff, what Jan Jaffe is calling philanthropy’s “second discipline,” the relational and interpersonal skills program officers need to do the work well.

I daresay we are spectacularly ill-prepared in the social sector to talk about and deal with this stuff in any kind of systematic way. There are any number of great program officers who move through these issues sensitively, effectively, and with nuance. CEP highlighted several a few years back. But that’s, as CEP put it, “luck of the draw,” not something that we hire or train for systematically.

I’m reminded of my former colleague Anne Sherman, who talked about change management as an inherently emotional process. It’s the CEO’s job, Anne wrote, “to help staff and board cope with the emotional aspects of change—the painful aspects of the process that involve letting go of something in order to make room for something new.”

What a discussion of risk helps us see is that it’s not just at times of change that emotional dynamics need to be managed; it’s in how we deal with uncertainty on a day-to-day basis. So, what might this look like?

  • Part of it is self-management, and self-awareness. GrantCraft has a great guide to leveraging your whole self in your grantmaking role. Hiring for that kind of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is part of equipping foundation staff to deal with risk, and failure.
  • But it’s also about the social dynamics within the organization. Individual self-awareness isn’t enough; the practices of how people generate ideas, talk about them, and decide whether or not to implement them deserves attention. Who gets to talk during your staff meetings? (How often do you have staff meetings in the first place?) Is there a de facto division between program staff and other staff? Are program staff the only ones looked to for program-related ideas, or suggestions about what’s working or what could work better?
  • One element of social dynamics that often doesn’t get discussed in philanthropy, because we’re oh-so-polite, is the role of education and social class. Look around at your next staff meeting. Are only the people with graduate degrees talking? Do we overly value the perspectives of those who’ve gone through the slog of post-secondary education? And do the cultures of those institutions sharpen our vulnerability to failure, because we’re so used to high achievement and reward?
  • Another element of social dynamics that does get discussed, all too often in a superficial way, is diversity, equity, and inclusion. As you’ll hear me say if you spend more than ten minutes with me, diversity is a checklist exercise about who’s at the table; inclusion is about how we treat each other at the table and who gets heard; and equity is about what results from our deliberations at the table. It’s time to get beyond diversity and engage inclusion and equity. And to do so in a way that allows for our vulnerable, fragile, human selves to work through unfamiliarity and difference toward understanding and comity. As the new Canadian premier said yesterday while announcing his new cabinet, when asked why it was 50% women: “because it’s 2015.”

All of this connects back to the relationship between internal openness and external openness. Do you need to be more internally open to enable you to be more externally open? Or you can be a structured, hierarchical, fear-driven place that delivers great customer service? This is an empirical question, but a moment’s reflection about how the corporate sector operates suggests that the two aren’t necessarily related. You can have places that are run very traditionally but are great at listening to customers. But how sustainable is this approach? And is greater harmony between the internal and the external conducive to better relationships? Again, this is an empirical matter.

But I would suggest, based on a discussion with some colleagues brought together by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO – another trusted network), that there are multiple points of entry for engaging with openness. These can include strategy, branding, technology, processes, leadership succession, and even physical space. This morning, I visited the Foundation Center’s beautiful new location in the financial district of Manhattan, which has open-plan architecture – no one has offices. It seems like it sends an important signal to have Brad Smith, the president, sitting at a workstation among everyone else. Making a change to the space is fostering a discussion about how the organizational culture shifts to incorporate open-plan. For us at Ford, a major strategy shift is spurring us to think about organizational culture. For others, it’s about branding, or technology.

These multiple paths are a gift: they give us different ways to engage with internal openness, including a willingness to talk about failure. And I think that means that we don’t have to wait to feel like we’re entirely internally open before being willing to be externally open. Rather, we can identify what point of entry to greater openness is most available, whether internal or external, and follow the thread that it provides us. What lies ahead is sure to be a labyrinth, but in the tale of Ariadne, Theseus, and the Minotaur, in the end, the heroes emerge from the maze. That’s a feeling worth working towards.

 

#FailEpic

Friday, 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

Thursday, 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!

Behind the Curtain

Thursday, 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

Thursday, 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?

“Off the Menu”

Thursday, November 7th, 2013

Thanks to the EPIP-NY chapter and TCC Group for co-hosting a workshop I facilitated yesterday, “Off the Menu: Choosing the Right Non-Grantmaking Roles.” The Mertz-Gilmore Foundation were fabulous hosts.

The focus of the workshop was to help foundation program staff identify non-grantmaking roles that are a good fit for them and their foundation. Such roles include research, advocacy, communications, convening, field building, and capacity building, among others. As the workshop description put it:

As a program staffer at a foundation, it can seem like there is an endless menu of conferences, convenings, site visits, affinity groups, blogs, and publications – not to mention all of the invitations from your grantees. It’s easy to say yes when you’re excited about learning and contributing to the field.  But you also have all the other work you’re expected to do, so how do you determine what’s really important—for your grantees, your program strategy, your foundation’s mission, and your own personal development?  And how do you navigate a supervisor or organizational culture that pushes you to get out there as much as possible—or one that would prefer you to stay chained to your desk?

While you have criteria for making grants, there are few rules when it comes to choosing non-grantmaking activities. How do you prioritize and make the case for those activities that are critical to your job, your foundation, and your personal development? How do you navigate generational differences within your organization to explain what kinds of non-grantmaking roles are worthwhile?

A few things struck me about the discussion at the workshop itself:

  • The range of actors involved in non-grantmaking roles is very broad. While the session was targeted to grantmakers, the diversity of the audience, which included nonprofit leaders and consultants made for lively discussion about what kinds of non-grantmaking activities are genuinely useful. If grantmakers get more into strategic communications, how aware are they of their audiences and what kind of language and terminology resonate with those audiences?
  • Non-grantmaking roles put funders on more of an equal footing with grantees. Without the grant relationship directly mediating the connection, nonprofits and funders have the potential to engage in a more open way. This is far from automatic, however! It requires some intentional discussions, and some recognition among funders that they’re learners in this space.
  • It’s important to balance your ambitions for non-grantmaking roles with the resources at your disposal. One area that several participants gravitated to was making the information funders receive from grantees and their own research more broadly available to the field. But what is the quality of that data? It may sound good to take a more data-driven approach to decision-making, but how reliable and accessible are the data with which you’re working? That doesn’t mean such efforts aren’t worth pursuing, but a measure of realism is needed.
  • There’s a desire for more of this discussion. The internal capacity of foundations is something for which we don’t have a lot of good frameworks or explicit ways of talking about, so it’s easy to make decisions in an ad hoc fashion. By naming the types of capacity that foundations, in particular their program staff, need to play their roles effectively, and how those capacities connect to mission achievement, we can shed light on this underappreciated area.

In upcoming posts, I’ll have more to say about the content of the workshop, in particular the idea that non-grantmaking roles can be understood in terms of how foundations Influence, Include, Inform, and Invest. For now, thanks again to those who participated!

Back 2 Life

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

Philanthropy creates a bubble for those who work in it. We all know this. But on the inside, it’s so easy to forget. The surface of the bubble is so shiny, as it refracts the light coming from the outside. It’s a curved surface, so things on either side look distorted. But your eyes adjust. The brain is so skilled at adapting to new realities. With time, the funhouse image feels like a mirror, or a window.

But outside the bubble, reality goes on. Surface tension, surprisingly strong, keeps the bubble aloft on gentle breezes. But it can always be popped.

What does reality-based grantmaking look like? It begins with a clear understanding of what funders can and cannot do.

  • You can fund advocacy.
  • You can do more than make grants.
  • You can include grantees and community members in your decision-making.
  • You cannot solve long-standing social problems with a three-year initiative based on project funding.
  • You cannot compare to the monetary impact of the public sector or individual giving. The budget of Hennepin County, Minnesota, is more than $1 billion. Only a couple dozen foundations exceed even that amount, and except for the Gates Foundation, their grantmaking budgets are much much smaller.
  • You cannot flit from topic to topic every few years and expect to make a difference (or get much respect).

The funders who make a difference are the ones who invest for the long term, or who partner strategically, or who accept that small victories are big in the right context. Project Streamline a few years ago advanced the notion of “right-sizing” grants – they mean grant requirements. But it’s time to right-size grants, and our ambitions along with them, to the extent of the problems we’re addressing.

Funders can do more than they allow themselves, and they can achieve less than they think they can. And that’s OK. Life in the bubble is stifling; no air circulates. Step on out. See your surroundings clearly. Touch the ground. It’ll all be fine. We could all use the knowledge you’ve gained and benefit from the independent you should be allowed to keep. But please – see what you are. Know thyself.

Back 2 Reality.

In news from the reality-based side of philanthropy, happy 10th anniversary to the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity! Lori Villarosa and her PRE colleagues have been tireless, fearless advocates for a topic that’s essential for renegotiating the 21st-century social contract. Thank you Lori and company for moving that conversation forward.

You’re (Not) the One that I Want

Thursday, November 15th, 2012

It’s all Sandy all the time here on The Blog Briefly Known as “Democratizing Philanthropy?”, so the most famous cinematic Sandy had to get a shout-out in my song-title-as-blog-title shtick. This whole thing – by which I mean the Sandy relief and recovery effort – goes right to the heart of my two questions on this blog: what does it mean to democratize philanthropy, and is philanthropy as a democratizing force? This whole thing is putting those two questions into sharp relief?

What it means to democratize philanthropy is that people are streaming to the Rockaways and Staten Island and just Getting. It. Done. Check out Sandy Sucks; I had the dumb luck and great honor of getting assigned (thank you Occupy Sandy) to car in which maestra Katie Bennett and two of her friends were getting out to the Rockaways last Saturday. Her site is an invaluable resource for keeping up to speed on what’s happening on the ground in some of the hardest-hit areas.

As someone who’s dedicated their career to working in and/or building the nonprofit sector, it pains me to see brilliant, dedicated people like Katie and her friends so turned off by the way the nonprofits that are meant to be at the frontlines in disaster relief are operating, or failing to.

Let’s be real here. The more New Yorkers see up close the ridiculous, bureaucratic, political, infuriating ways in which various elements of the nonprofit infrastructure responsible for disaster response fail to coalesce, the more pressure there’s going to be on Obama’s freshly reminted coalition. You’re less inclined to argue for the role of government when you see up close the abject failure of the government to provide one of its most basic functions. Just you wait and see…. The young people who make up a big and growing part of Obama’s coalition have ZERO patience for doing things the way they’ve been done just because we need to protect the institutions that have protected us for so long. It’s hard enough to defend teachers’ unions when they’re the object of systematized propaganda campaigns (cough, Rahm-Emanuel-tip-of-the-iceberg, cough). But to defend the role of FEMA when you see with you’re own eyes that FEMA’s just not there, or not there nearly fast enough – well, that’s a yard too far.

I’ve long been of the opinion (see here) that progressives ignore at their peril the incredibly mediocre everyday experience of government “service” that’s no farther than the local DMV or Post Office. You can’t defend government’s role without looking squarely at the inefficiencies of government. Now let’s be clear, these get exaggerated, and/or there are reasons, political or otherwise, for these inefficiencies. (That’s a post for another time; I am a political scientist after all, this is what I was trained to analyze.) But Sandy is a clear case of the rubber hitting the road. The people meant to help aren’t there to help.

There’s another side to this, and frankly, I don’t know how to reconcile it. Check out this list from the Center for Disaster Philanthropy about how nonprofits are responding to Sandy. This sounds like a lot! Maybe the way to reconcile it with the Sandy Sucks experience is that these are local organizations that were already there (like Red Hook Initiative), and the problem is the national ones that need to come from outside. But I don’t know. I see a disconnect, and it troubles me. The government-charitable disaster-relief infrastructure is taking a HUGE credibility hit in the wake of Sandy, in the heart of an area that should be a bastion of its support. I worry about the long-term impact on nonprofits…but I’m hopeful that it’ll lead to greater efficiencies, greater accountability, and ultimately, faster response to the hardest-hit.

Is philanthropy a democratizing force? Sometimes, when it’s done in the spirit of self-provisioning and mutual aid, maybe it can be.

On My Own

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Privacy

Autonomy

Perpetuity

As I started talking about last time, these are the tenets of the archetypal charitable foundation in the U.S.

Autonomy means that no one other than their own board of trustees tells them what to do. They’re not beholden to shareholders, the government, the public – they have the ability to make up their own minds.

At modest asset sizes, this doesn’t seem too problematic at first glance – you want to have your own idiosyncratic agenda, hey, more power to you.

But when we’re talking billions of dollars, that’s when people start getting suspicious. Arundhati Roy’s recent piece about the pernicious role of US foundations abroad (which, interestingly enough, is an argument being echoed, in a different key, at the Hudson Institute next week) targets certain large and familiar names like Ford, Rockefeller, and Gates. To a degree, these folks are setting themselves up for such scrutiny by promoting their own brands more aggressively (see Alison Bernstein’s reflections on how Ford’s branding has changed over the years). (H/T GiftHub for these three links.)

But let’s not forget, even with all their billions, these groups are a drop in the bucket of the economies of social problems. As Sandy Vargas of the Minneapolis Foundation pointed out at the EPIP conference last year, her budget when she ran a county administration in the Twin Cities metro area was $2 billion. One county, in one state! OK, a big county, but still – in government terms, foundations are a drop in the bucket. Always healthy to remember that.

But I think the real issue arises when autonomy is exercised by big fishes in small ponds. This goes back to the idea of funding ecosystems – funders need to be aware of how they’re situated in their individual fields, and what are the impacts of the choices they make on the health of the ecosystem. When everyone gets too focused and no one supports the broad-based, bread-and-butter groups…the ecosystem suffers.

Autonomy becomes a challenge when funders operate in fields with few other actors, where their decisions have outsize consequences. Even if in the aggregate, foundation dollars are a drop in the bucket, at the micro level, or even field level, they can have an outsize influence. All the more important then to adopt the Spider-man model as a default: “with great power comes great responsibility.”

When you combine this kind of autonomy with privacy, it can be difficult for actors in the field to figure out how to relate to “their” funders. If the default setting is for funders to keep things internally oriented, then information may not flow freely enough to enable the ongoing health of the ecosystem. If water plays a critical role in biological ecosystems, then information is the water of funding ecosystems. Privacy and autonomy throw up dams that need to be acknowledged, understood, and managed. And sometimes replaced….

Next, I’ll look at how the goal of perpetuity interacts with privacy and autonomy.