Thank you for writing this piece. It is largely spot on in terms of challenging the orthodoxy, myth-building, and conventional wisdom that plagues so much of philanthropy. And foundation boards and CEOs surely could stand to be held accountable to a greater degree on a number of fronts. Namely, many foundations fall into the trap of saying they are changing their ways, but many fail or fall well short of actually doing so in a clear, tangible, and demonstrable way. A foundation — or any other entity — can claim all it wants that it’s innovative, that it’s community-driven, that it’s operating with transparency, that it’s changing the power dynamic, or that it’s taking a different approach to philanthropy. But if funding decisions are being decided by some small number of executives or board members and resulting in endowed university chair positions or navel-gazing projects, it rings a little hollow to say the least.
That all said, there are a few points that are worth considering:
One, I don’t think the problem is as binary as this article conveys. It’s not simply a question of new vs. old, RFP vs. philanthro-hacking, private foundations vs. LLCs. There can be only one way is a false premise. There can be really effective foundations, and really incompetent entrepreneurial social enterprise. There can be new charitable efforts that fall flat, and old foundations that design and deploy effective and innovative new approaches.
Two, there remains the possibility of far too much reflection in philanthropy. One of the most common problems that permeate foundations I’ve worked with is spending a great deal of time and resources looking in the mirror, planning, reflecting, strategically learning, strategy refreshing, and all other sorts of resets, often leading to vague new beginnings that eventually require the very same kind of self-reflective process. If you work in a foundation, you probably are nodding your head thinking about how many workshops and trainings and other such venues you’ve sat through that resulted in little if any change in culture or operations. I just came from a philanthropy conference where conversations with staff largely centered on ‘what’s going on with that place,’ in reference to any number of foundations that can’t get out of their own way.
Three, it comes down to the question of risk. Few if any institutions are positioned to take as big and bold of risks as foundations. Yet foundations are often incredibly risk averse in myriad ways that self-restricts their own effectiveness and impact. If you work at a foundation, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And this risk aversion is often most prevalent at the board and CEO levels. Why? I don’t really know. I have not been in their shoes. But I imagine it has a lot to do with self-preservation and not wanting to be asked to leave the club that rewards not rocking the boat too much.
Thanks again for writing.