Last week there was a flurry of letters to editors, emails to association members and blog posts in response to David Callahan's OpEd in the New York Times. In a nutshell, Callahan responded to the news of a couple of charitable bad actors by proposing that the philanthropic sector - including foundations - could do with a bit more oversight and regulation. We're too mysterious and clandestine in our work, apparently.
Fortunately, those who spoke up about this issue in support of charities emphasized that foundations and charities are regulated already, both from within and from without. But the real question here isn't about rules and regulations, it's about how well the communities foundations serve understand their role and value. It's not about what's said in the press as much as what's said in everyday conversations about your foundation and its work.
Here are four ways you can help inform those everyday conversations and build a stronger image for your foundation:
1. Be Real. There is a definite power dynamic that comes part and parcel with holding large sums of charitable assets. However, as the holder of those funds, you are the only one equipped to keep conversations real, honest and mutually respectful. When you meet with nonprofits or community leaders, try acknowledging early in your conversation that although you may have financial resources, they are the holders of knowledge or connections or expertise that make those dollars effective.
2. Admit Mistakes. No one likes to admit mistakes, but everyone makes them - including funders. Trying to downplay or ignore them can not only make a funder seem untrustworthy, but also rob a community of valuable lessons learned that could inform future efforts. Instead, position your mistakes or failures as learning opportunities and embrace the opportunity to remind others in your community that funders are human, too.
3. Invite Community Perspectives. When you hold your work close to the vest, you miss valuable opportunities to learn from people immediately entrenched in the problems you seek to address. You also perpetuate the image of the "ivory tower" funder - all-knowing and untouchable. Engage others in your community as you plan and evaluate your work: what are their priority issues? What do they think will work? What impact do they see? Yes, it's more work for you to educate and include multiple stakeholders, but the payback in terms of partnership and impact are well worth it.
4. Don't Believe the Hype. A staff member at one of my funder clients recently joked about how well-liked all foundation staff are in the community. "Once you start working for a foundation, everyone thinks you're wonderful," she laughed. But she knows better and so should you. When you are in a position to supply sums of money, very few people will tell you're their true opinions about your work, your organization, or even you. Take the compliments with a grain of salt and listen carefully to even mild criticism and embrace it as a hint on how to improve.
As the field of philanthropy continues to grow, there is no doubt that media coverage and scrutiny of our work will increase. So will criticism. There are bound to be more stories of bad actors, as there are in every industry. But you can do your part to ensure that the criticism isn't rooted in misconceptions or misunderstandings. Let's make sure that as our field grows, the understanding of and support for our work grows as well.
To read some of the counter-opinions to David Callahan's OpEd, check out Philanthropy New York's summary of them, as well as Phil Buchanan's response.
Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a nationally recognized philanthropy expert, consultant and speaker. Join her on June 18th for an Exponent Philanthropy teleconference "Let It Go: Rethink Your Grantmaking Processes to Reclaim Your Edge" or at the Exponent Philanthropy CONNECT conference, where she will lead a session on Grantmaking Essentials.
© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.