Every new year, I speak with many philanthropic leaders about their goals and hopes for the coming year. By the end of January, those goals and hopes have become a blur for many. Some entered the New Year running and are starting to feel overwhelmed. A few are experiencing a sluggish start. Others aren’t sure where to begin. That’s completely understandable—philanthropy is hard work! However, taking a little time for planning can help you achieve dramatic results this year. The next time January rolls around, ask yourself these eight questions:
- What can I learn in the next three months? These should be things that will improve your grantmaking for the remainder of the year. You might need to conduct an evaluation, retain an expert advisor, or spend the day reading articles and listening to podcasts about a certain topic. Armed with new insight, you will be better prepared to allocate your talent, time, and resources and achieve more dramatic results.
- What holds me back? Identify and eliminate it. If you are overwhelmed by email, commit to reaching “Inbox Zero” by the end of January. Do you have a poverty mentality, believing you don’t deserve or can’t afford something that would greatly improve your work experience? Are you hesitant to seek a promotion because you fear you don’t have the leadership skills? Hire an executive coach, talk to a therapist, take a class—do whatever it takes to move past this self-created hurdle so that you can be happier and accomplish more.
- How can I empower my staff? From the vice president of programs to the administrative assistant, your staff could have greater impact if they felt they had the authority and the training to do so. This could involve increasing program staff’s budget and grantmaking authority, eliminating bureaucratic hurdles within your operation, training assistants in customer service and allowing them to resolve problems, or rethinking your entire HR function to strategically develop leadership at all levels of your foundation. The changes can be big or small, and the best source of ideas is your staff.
- What can I share? You’ve benefited from the wisdom and knowledge of experts, nonprofit leaders, and community members who helped you shape your grantmaking strategy. Now it’s time to pay it forward by sharing what you’ve learned with colleagues who can benefit from your insight. Write a case study or create a funder toolkit to share what your foundation has accomplished, what you’ve learned, and what you would do differently.
- If I could only accomplish one thing this year, what would it be? That really gets to the heart of it, doesn’t it? You might be at your organization for the next ten years, but what if this were your last year? What do you really want to accomplish? For what do you wish to be remembered? Write it down, schedule time in your calendar, retain the help you need, and go do it.
- What are my top three priorities for the year? (If you find it hard to pick only three, refer to the previous item!). I’m not saying you can’t work on the other four, seven, or ten things. But now that you know your top priorities, you can determine what steps you can take in Q1 to make sure they happen by Q4. For example, if you want to launch a new grantmaking initiative, you might need to retain a consultant to conduct an environmental scan. If you want to change, expand, or eliminate a funding strategy, you might want to evaluate it first to assess impact and opportunity. At the very least, create a time line starting with what you want to accomplish by year’s end and work backward.
- What is the one thing I can do now that will make everything else easier or unnecessary? In my experience, this often involves delegation: taking the time to hire or train someone today who can begin taking work off your plate. But it could also mean firing someone, reorganizing your team, recruiting new board members, investing in coaching or leadership development, etc.
- What activity consistently takes an obnoxious amount of time and drains energy from me and my team? You know what I’m talking about. It’s that activity that just popped into your head. That thing that you dread doing every year, quarter, or month. Identify three ways you can reduce its intensity or eliminate it entirely. Is your board book two hundred pages long? Develop a plan to reduce it to fifty. Are your proposals cumbersome to read? Streamline them. Yes, this will take time, but if you start that project now, by the end of the year your staff will consider you their hero. More important, you will free up time and mental energy to accomplish your top priorities.
I guarantee that if you answer and act upon these eight questions—preferably within the first quarter—you will reap the rewards during the remainder of the year.
I’ve worked with many new foundation CEOs, some of whom are not only new to their role, but new to philanthropy. If you find yourself in this position, here are 5 mistakes you should avoid:
- Assuming you don’t need to learn about philanthropy because you were hired for being “an outsider.” There is a trend in philanthropy to pooh-pooh philanthropy: a belief that philanthropy is too insular, which isn’t entirely untrue. Every field needs to bring in fresh thinking and new ideas, and one way to accomplish that is to hire from outside. But that doesn’t mean that the field is damaged. Giving money away is not easy. Recognize that you are standing on the shoulders of seasoned leaders with vast experience in grantmaking. Find the strengths in your foundation, your team, your funding collaborative, and your grantmaking strategies so that you know what to preserve and what to change. There is much to be learned from the experiences, best practices, and mistakes of others.
- Not reaching out to colleagues. A few years ago I had lunch with a foundation CEO client and discussed my new project with another foundation in the same city whose CEO had recently been hired from the nonprofit sector. “Funny,” my client said. “This is his first philanthropy job. He’s been there four months, but he hasn’t reached out to me even though our foundations are working on similar issues. In fact, I’ve heard the same concern from other funders. They are a major player in this community—why wouldn’t he introduce himself to the other big foundations?” If you are new to the field, identify the top ten foundations in your community, the top ten in your program areas (e.g., if you fund regionally or internationally), and other key funding partners. Make a point to contact those CEOs, take them to lunch, schedule a phone conversation, or set a time to talk at a meeting you both will be attending. These colleagues can be invaluable resources to you to help orient you to your new role and to philanthropy. They might be willing to provide insight into your foundation, identify opportunities, introduce you to other colleagues, and partner with you. You have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
- Insulting your colleagues. One new CEO, during a conference call with seasoned foundation leaders in his community, made a comment that philanthropy needs to change to finally have some impact. One of these foundations has been making grants for more than 100 years, and the other for more than 60. Their CEOs have been in their jobs for well over a decade each. I’m guessing that they each have achieved some impact! While there is always room for improvement, running out the gate by insulting your colleagues is not the best way to start. Instead, take the time to research your colleague foundations’ strengths and accomplishments and identify ways that, collectively, you can all make improvements.
- Not recognizing that you have entered a new industry full of connections and networks. You don’t know what you don’t know. So recognize that and act accordingly. A consultant colleague was introduced to a new CEO by his vice president, and after a wonderful conversation they agreed the consultant should submit a proposal to help with a project of strategic importance to the foundation. She submitted it, and waited for a response. And waited. Despite multiple phone calls, voice messages, and emails over a period of two months, she never heard from him. What this person failed to appreciate is that she was highly connected and well respected in that community and personally knew several of his staff, some board members, and many of his colleagues. Treating her poorly reflected badly on him. He walked into a new field without appreciating the existing networks and interconnectivity within it. He didn’t have to hire her, but rather than leveraging existing networks, he ignored them.
- Refusing help. Taking a new position is risky, and I am sure you are eager to prove yourself. There are a tremendous number of resources that can help you, if you are willing to put your ego aside and accept help. This could involve executive coaching, seeking advice from colleagues, finding more seasoned philanthropy CEOs who can serve as mentors, hiring consultants to support your initial goals (e.g., to review the impact of current funding strategies or help with planning), or taking advantage of the many learning opportunities in the field. For example, look into the following resources that best meet your particular needs:
- LearnPhilanthropy provides a wealth of free resources to accelerate learning among newcomers to philanthropy.
- The Council on Foundations offers resources for CEO leadership development and foundation management.
- If you are running a family foundation, the National Center on Family Philanthropy offers the CEO Initiative.
- CEOs of small foundations can participate in Exponent Philanthropy’s Master Juggler Executive Institute.
- The National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers provides a free online directory of philanthropy consultants and advisors.
- New leaders who are under age forty might consider joining Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy.
- If you are running a community foundation, you can attend the Community Foundation Fundamentals course sponsored by the Council on Foundations.
- Your local regional association of grantmakers might offer programming and support specifically for foundation CEOs or those new to philanthropy. For example, Northern California Grantmakers offers the New Grantmakers Institute.
The bottom line: You bring new strengths to your foundation and to a field that has a history of significant impact. And you also have room to learn, grow, and improve, just as your foundation and the entire philanthropic sector have opportunities to strengthen and improve. If you take the time to learn about your new world, and your role in it, you will be positioned for tremendous success.
I’ve spoken with thousands of foundation leaders over the past 15 years, and I’ve found that one thing that holds many back from achieving the dramatic success and deep impact that they seek. They have a poverty mentality.
A poverty mentality is a belief that money should not be spent on internal investment unless the need is urgent, opportunities are limited by capacity, improvement is always incremental, we should do more with less, and we don’t deserve the best, fastest, or most efficient path to success. It is based on fear of failure and a misguided belief that maintaining a Spartan operation equates to delivering value for grantees and communities.
An abundance mentality is a belief that internal investment is important, opportunities are a reason to grow capacity, advances can be made in leaps and bounds, success can be replicated and improved, we can handle most situations and challenges (or bounce back quickly), and we deserve to make investments in order to realize the greatest outcomes. This mentality is based on the belief that the more you put into life, the more you get out of it.
Interestingly, I don’t believe the poverty or abundance mentality really have much to do with money. Instead, it has everything to do with attitude and outlook. If you think small, you will act small, and your results will be small.
Here’s how the difference between a poverty mentality and an abundance mentality play out in the field: Foundation leaders with a poverty mentality will say things like:
- We’re just a small organization; we can’t afford it (even on something of strategic importance to the organization).
- The money we spend on professional development or technology is money we’re taking away from our grantees (even if investing in yourself would make you a smarter, more effective grantmaker better able to achieve your mission).
- Our grantee budgets cannot include more than 12% for administrative overhead (regardless of the project and what they are trying to accomplish).
- We don’t provide our staff with laptops when they travel for business – what if they break? (It doesn’t matter that customer service suffers when grant proposals stack up, emails go unanswered because employees can’t efficiently make use of their travel time.)
- What is the cheapest way we can do this (regardless of quality, time, or discomfort)?
Grantmakers with an abundance mentality will say things like:
- Who are the top experts in the country (or world) who can advise us?
- How much more impact could we have if we added additional staffing capacity to our grantmaking initiative?
Who are the best people we can get, and what is the most strategic use of their time?
- If our program was to become a national model, what would that look like? What can we put in place now to accomplish that?
- If we really want to make a difference on this issue, we need to make a multi-year commitment.
- What tools, resources or technology will help our staff and grantees become more effective?
- Let’s magnify our impact by leveraging relationships and partners.
- Let’s survey our grantees to better understand their experience with us, so that we can improve.
- It’s OK if this corporate funding initiative also benefits our competitors. It will improve outcomes for everyone and we will learn a lot.
Notice that very few of the abundance examples actually would require large amounts of money, especially relative to the impact they could deliver. Talking to experts could be free if you leverage connections, and additional staffing could actually save time, money and effort in the long run. It’s about looking at the world with a sense of preserving comfortable practices rather than unleashing the possibilities.
I spoke once with the leaders of a donor support organization that wanted to triple their number of donor members, and dramatically influence the hundreds of millions of dollars of annual giving of its members to be more in line with the goals of this organization (progressive issues, systems change, movement building, etc.). The organization had
no idea what percent of current donor annual giving supported organization goals, how much influence (if any) it currently had on donor giving, or the barriers these donors experienced in funding activities related to the organiza- tion’s goals, like community organizing, policy advocacy, systems change, etc. The organization absolutely needed
this information in order to meet its goals, yet CEO balked at the idea of investing $75,000 to find out. “We are a small nonprofit organization and we can’t afford it” was the response. This is a poverty mentality.
Luckily, my colleagues and I are fortunate to work with many forward-thinking organizations that employ an abundance mentality. For example, when Blue Shield of California ended the year with a surplus, it created a grantmaking program to support accountable care organizations and celebrated the fact that it would benefit even their competitor insurance companies. The Annie E. Casey Foundation invested in a public report of a program that was only a third of the way through its planned timeline to share the lessons they were learning in real time. I might
add that just the process of producing that report helped the foundation find and make adjustments that will doubtless save dollars and increase impact down the road. And the George Gund Foundation saw the importance of advocacy
and communications in launching a new city-wide pre-K initiative and invested in the success of those activities, thus enhancing its earlier investment in bringing the initiative to life.
Reflect for a minute on the personalities and accomplishments of the organizations you know that operate with a poverty mentality, then think about those who embrace an abundance mentality. Which one would you rather lead or be part of?
The philanthropic sector has seen steady growth over the past decade, with the total number of foundations increasing roughly 25% from 2003 to 2013, according to the Foundation Center. That means thousands of new boards have been formed — including a number of “health legacy foundations” created by the sale of nonprofit hospitals or health systems to private companies.
A new foundation board may be made up of veteran philanthropists, but I’ll wager that, more often than not, many of those entrusted are taking on the job for the first time. It’s a big responsibility, and many of the early choices made by a new board can determine whether the new foundation will move forward smoothly and effectively or become mired in a culture or in policies that stifle effectiveness.
With that in mind, here are 10 mistakes that new foundation boards often make, and how to avoid them.
- Making the simple complex
Our goal should be to make the complex simple, not the simple complex. Yet many foundation boards unintentionally “complexify” the foundation. They assume that complexity is a means to ensure stewardship, or fairness, or inclusion. But what complexity really does is create chaos and frustration. Too many board or committee members can make for a cumbersome decision process. An overly complex board meeting preparation process can shave years off the lives of all involved. (I know of foundations whose preparations are so complex that the entire staff is unavailable for an entire month leading up to each quarterly board meeting. That’s four months of the year when this foundation isn’t making any progress; meanwhile, a third of the staff salary budget is spent on preparing documents that few will thoroughly read.)
Likewise, an overly complex grantmaking process can overburden staff, board, and grantees and keep your charitable investments from finding their best targets. A $10,000 grant shouldn’t require a 15-page proposal, nor demand that the recipient conduct an evaluation and provide quarterly updates. One foundation I know has 14 pages of instructions for an 8-page grant application — that’s a sure sign of overcomplexity!
There are also levels of complexity to avoid in terms of hiring vendors or vetting partners. Do you really need to conduct an RFP process if you already know a talented consultant?
As tempting as it may be to adopt another foundation’s practices, ask yourself, “Is this approach really going to provide benefit for our operation?” Just because a more established foundation is doing something, such as conducting site visits with all applicants or requiring weekly staff meetings, doesn’t mean you have to. Let common sense be your guide and do what is most useful to you!
- Managing instead of governing
Remember, the role of a board is governance: clarifying mission and vision, setting strategic direction, setting policy, and providing financial stewardship. You’ve (hopefully) hired a CEO to manage your foundation and any staff you may have, so one of the best things you can do to ensure the health and effectiveness of your foundation is to let your staff do their jobs. Avoid the temptation to manage staff or micromanage staff leadership. It’s your job to create the foundation’s vision and plan, and your staff’s job to implement it.
On the flip side, do make sure your services, wisdom, or expertise are available when staff requests it. And also, recognize that there are times when your board may need to roll up its sleeves and be a “working board” in addition to a “governing board.” This particularly may be the case in early days, before you’ve hired staff. But once staff are in place, they may call on you to help network and build relationships in the community, study a particular aspect of community need, or participate in a special training relevant to the work of the foundation.
- Failing to manage and support the CEO
While managing staff is not a board role, you do hold responsibility for managing the CEO. This can be a delicate dance — you want your CEO to bring his or her specific expertise and creativity to the job. At the same time, you want to feel confident that things are moving in the direction, at the pace, you desire.
Open and honest communication with the CEO is critical to maintaining balance. You must be receptive to the CEO’s ideas and instincts and put measures in place to support his or her work within a framework that you both consider appropriate. There are several ways to do this:
- Conduct annual CEO evaluations.
- Schedule regular calls or meetings to share information and questions, and avoid “popping in” whenever the mood strikes you.
- Identify areas where the CEO might need help, and provide her with what she needs to be successful. (For example, help position her in the community if she’s moved in recently to take the helm, provide an executive coach, or include time and funds to send her to conferences where she can connect with peer leaders and learn on behalf of your foundation.)
Of course, even the most clever and talented CEO can’t handle everything on his own. Be on the lookout for opportunities to provide assistance, and make it clear that asking for help is not an admission of failure or weakness. As the board, you set the tone for the CEO relationship, so finding a healthy balance between freedom and support is your responsibility. If you do it right, it will pay off exponentially in the caliber of the leadership you can attract and retain.
- Operating with a poverty mentality
In my opinion, one of the worst things a board can do is confuse thrift and stewardship, or mistake austerity for efficiency. Saving money is not the same as growing it. (If it were, we wouldn’t have the stock market.) A poverty mentality means not investing in your foundation’s own internal resources for growth and development. While this may appear to be a prudent way to reserve your assets for grantmaking, in actuality you’re stunting the growth and abilities of your organization.
For example, I know of one foundation that did not allow staff to use its laptops on business trips for fear of theft, which meant program officers lost days of productivity when traveling. Another, wanting to keep salary expenses low, refused to hire enough support staff, which in turn siphoned hours of program officer time into administrative duties rather than into engaging with community and building the networks and partnerships that would better serve the foundation’s mission.
Foundations with an abundance mentality understand that dollars and time invested in training, technology, capacity, relationship building, and professional development make their operations more efficient, intelligent, and effective for the communities they serve.
- Misunderstanding fiduciary and legal obligations
While much of the responsibility for operations falls to the CEO, it is the fiduciary responsibility of the board to ensure that the foundation follows the laws and regulations that govern private foundations. An experienced CEO may bring substantial knowledge about issues such as self-dealing, the 5% payout requirement, and conflicts of interest, but her knowledge is no substitution for your own, and it is the board — not the CEO — that must assume responsibility for failure to comply with laws and regulations. Penalties can be stiff, and problems can be complicated and expensive to resolve. Better to find seasoned, professional legal advisors to help your board fully understand its obligations and responsibilities. You can also learn a great deal from foundation membership associations, such as your state or regional association of grantmakers or the Council on Foundations.
- Failing to learn
The point just above may be all you need to hear to emphasize the importance of learning in a board member’s role, but the opportunity to expand your knowledge doesn’t stop with what you have to know. Instead, consider all of the aspects of governance, visioning, planning, collaborating, and grantmaking that you could learn because you want to know. If your foundation focuses on a particular interest area, such as education or health or social justice, consider all the content knowledge that is out there that could greatly enhance your work, your effectiveness, and your ultimate satisfaction as a grantmaker!
There are myriad ways to learn. Conferences, trainings, reading, conversations, and consultations with experts — these and other opportunities are all available to you as a board member. All you need to do is be wiling to invest the time and attention to learn.
Additionally, foundation boards can reflect and learn from their own experiences. New foundation boards can test out their new application and decision-making processes, and 6 to 12 months later debrief what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved.
Good boards never stop learning. Great boards embrace the idea of being a learning organization — where ongoing inquiry and exploration are the norm.
- Misunderstanding the power dynamic
Many quip that once you work for or serve on a foundation board, you never have to pay for lunch and everyone laughs at your jokes. While this observation is amusing, it is true that a very real power dynamic that exists between a foundation and the nonprofit community it serves. Nowhere is this power dynamic more apparent — and more dangerous — than between a board member and his community.
Being in a position of power means that people are inclined to be more deferential to your opinion, even if they disagree. As a board, you must be your own critical thought partner and examine ideas — especially your own — from every angle. You must also strive to create an environment where those who know more about your community needs and opportunities — namely, your grantees — feel absolutely safe and comfortable in sharing their honest and candid opinions and ideas with you.
No one has all the answers, but people often equate money with knowledge. Be the first to admit when your board is unsure of an idea it has surfaced, when you feel you need someone else to be the expert, or when you’ve made a mistake. This type of humility and candor will help rebalance the power for change and collaboration in your community and move everyone further, faster.
- Letting it go to your head
Similar to the point above, arrogance, bossiness, or condescension on the part of a board member can have devastating effects on relationships between the foundation and nonprofits. It can make the difference between grantee organizations that work as true partners versus those that say what they think a foundation wants to hear in order to receive funding. Here are three red flags to avoid:
- Believing it’s your money. It’s not. It legally and technically belongs to the community. You are a trustee, and therefore you assume responsibility for ensuring that community assets are used appropriately. It’s no more your money than it is the guy’s sitting next to you at the bus stop. Never forget that.
- Playing favorites. No doubt you have causes you believe in most passionately. There are organizations to which you feel an abiding loyalty. But as a foundation board member, you must leave those feelings at the door. Your job is to be objective, strategic, and judicious in making grants. Playing favorites can easily undermine your community’s trust in the foundation’s mission and operations and thereby diminish your hopes for effectiveness.
- Thinking others need to prove themselves. I have worked with board members who thought so much of their positions that they felt others needed to prove themselves worthy of attention. One did so by making surprise site visits to potential grantees. (How would you like a surprise home inspection by the county health department?) Another believed firmly that a nonprofit should have to “work for the money,” and so she created an incredibly long and excessively detailed application form. The foundation staff didn’t need all that information; it was merely to make grantseekers jump through hoops, as if a nonprofit staff doesn’t have more than enough to do already to provide services to those in need.
Please, please don’t be one of these people.
- Failing to seek community input
No matter where your board comes from, there are always people in your community who will know a heck of a lot more about teen pregnancy, substance abuse, mental health, violence, early childhood education, or any topic than you will. There are also those who truly know what it means to live in a certain neighborhood, or attend a certain school, or spend time behind bars.
No matter what issue you are hoping to address or what entrenched social problem you want to tackle, there are those who are in the midst of the struggle, who feel the need on a daily basis, and who will feel the impact of your work most deeply. The smart path is to seek input from the people you are trying to help about what they experience, what they desire most, and what you might be able to do. The answers may well surprise you — and your grantmaking will be all the more effective because of it.
Gathering community feedback can be as simple as having informal conversations or as formal as hosting focus groups or task forces that include community members. Just make sure that you create an environment where they feel comfortable speaking frankly about their views, and be ready to follow up quickly in a small but meaningful way to let them know you appreciated their time and their willingness to share. Then check back regularly to share progress and gather more feedback to continue to guide your efforts.
- Failing to hold one another accountable
No one serves on a board alone. By design, a board is meant to ensure that the will of one does not outweigh the overall judgment of the group. However, politeness and decorum often prevent board members from addressing conflict in constructive ways. As a result, boards can become divided, schisms can disrupt the proceedings, and vision and goals can get seriously sidetracked.
To avoid situations like these, create a policy for airing differences respectfully and thoughtfully, preferably as they arise and within the confines of a board meeting, so that feelings of distrust or resentment have no opportunity to grow. Agree at the outset that you will not always agree. Understand that you don’t have to be best friends, but you do have to work together as a cohesive unit.
You also should have an established way of identifying and addressing any board member actions that are inappropriate (such as micromanaging or abusing their power with grantees) or downright illegal (such as self-dealing).
Remember that, as a new foundation board, you — unlike corporate boards or government officials — have very little enforced accountability. Your success or failure depends a great deal on how seriously you take your role as a governing body and as a community asset and partner. It can seem intimidating, but with the right advice, training, and attitude, you can create a lasting legacy for the community you serve.
Want to learn more about effective foundation boards? Browse a range of board-related topics at putnam-consulting.com.
© 2016 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.
The sale of a nonprofit hospital or health plan to a for-profit company can yield a great deal of change for a community, including the creation of a new, independent foundation created from the proceeds of the sale. In many cases, these new entities represent a significant new source of community wealth — and where assumptions may be that the actions of the new foundation may be closely tied to the clinical work of the hospital and the philanthropic efforts of the former hospital or health plan, the reality is often vastly different. Likewise, board members who previously served on the hospital foundation and are now on the board of the new, independent foundation may find themselves falling back on old practices and assumptions, when in fact their new reality demands some different skills and ways of thinking.
Let’s take a quick look at what stays the same for transitioning board members and what can (and should) be different.
What’s the Same?
As an independent foundation board member, you are still working for a charitable purpose. You are still with a 501(c)(3) organization, although it’s likely moved (or is in the process of moving) from public charity status to private foundation status. Your legal and fiduciary requirements as a board member of a 501(c)(3) remain the same. Your goal is still to improve lives and provide stewardship for the charitable funds held by your organization.
In other words, the essential spirit of your work remains the same. However, what you do and how you go about it are now vastly different.
Five Major Points of Difference
- The shift from fund-raising to funds distribution. As a private foundation board member, you are likely no longer in the fund-raising business. This is usually a huge relief to board members, who appreciate the financial stability for operating funds that a large endowment can provide. Instead, you can focus exclusively on the joy of providing grants and making a difference in the community. But with this new role comes new responsibility, as well as the agony of making tough choices between worthy applicants and having to say “no” when you’d prefer to say “yes.”
- The shift from competitive to cooperative. As a board member of your hospital or health plan, you helped make the organization as competitive as possible — for patients, for members, for medical professionals, for funders and donors. Although you may have worked in partnership with others, the need to put your hospital forward was always there. However, in philanthropy there is very little competition. Instead of considering your great ideas to be closely held secrets, you’ll want to share them and network widely with others to learn. A foundation that identifies effective ways to increase the quality of preschool education is not going to withhold that information from another foundation. It will want to share it with others so that they too can improve preschools in their communities. I recommend joining several funder networks, such as your regional association of grantmakers, Grantmakers in Health or other associations where foundations like yours congregate, so that you can both learn and share.
- The shift in power. As a hospital foundation trustee, you likely worked in close relationship with hospital leadership, whose wishes and direction weighed heavily into your planning and decisions. As an independent funder, you now hold a great deal of power simply because of the assets you represent and your ability to decide how they are deployed. Despite your best and most sincere efforts to connect humbly, your grantees, potential grantees and community will always be aware of that imbalance of power. Never forget that it exists, and that it’s up to you to mitigate it as much as possible.
- The shift to ongoing learning. In the play Fiddler on the Roof, there is a song lyric that says, “When you’re rich, they think you really know.” It can be easy to make the assumption that since you have been put in charge, you must have some knowledge worth using — and indeed that is likely the case. But what you know now as a new private foundation board member is only the very tip of the iceberg in terms of the knowledge you’ll need to truly understand your community’s needs, the funding structures that might address them, the ways in which your investments (internal and external) might advance your mission and what it takes to do your work effectively. In addition to joining the groups I mentioned above, consider embracing the idea of being a learning organization. You’ll never have all the answers, but you’ll get much further if you admit that and actively engage in learning together with your community.
- The shift to community-focused critical thinking. While you may have worn your critical thinking cap as a board member of a hospital or its operating foundation, you’ll need to broaden your range as a community grantmaker. Whereas your focus may have been primarily on the operation of a single entity (the hospital or the hospital’s foundation) and its benefit to the community, now you’re faced with a much broader opportunity to deliver impact. Within your new purview you must think critically about whether the ways you plan to serve the community are effective, strategic, lasting, collaborative or even legal. (Sometimes great ideas have legal or regulatory sticking points you’ll need to understand fully before proceeding.) In addition to analyzing how your new foundation operates, you’ll also have to ponder a wide range of community needs, circumstances, challenges and opportunities that go well beyond the parameters of a hospital foundation. Complacency is not an option.
As you embark on your new adventure as a private foundation board member, I’m sure you will encounter many more differences in the way you must think, learn and lead. Luckily, a growing number of resources can help you. Check out organizations such as Exponent Philanthropy, BoardSource, Grantmakers in Health and Learn Philanthropy. And of course, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have a question or challenge you’d like to discuss. I’m happy to help, because when you lead your foundation well, everyone benefits.
Want to learn more about effective foundation boards? Browse a range of board-related topics at putnam-consulting.com.
© 2016 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that at some point in the past, some visionary philanthropist chose to place his or her assets in trust for the good of the community by creating a charitable foundation. And perhaps more recently, you were tapped to be a steward of those resources by serving as a foundation trustee.
Congratulations! You’re now engaged in what likely will be some of the most challenging, most humbling, and most fulfilling work you will ever have done. As a board member, how can you make sure you bring your best to the table and bring out the best in your foundation?
It’s true that foundation boards operate as a unit (see 10 Essential Roles for Foundation Boards). But those boards are made up of individuals, each with critical skills and knowledge to contribute. Here are 10 essential roles that every foundation board member should play. If you understand and embrace these roles, you will help ensure that you are fulfilling your duties with wisdom and clarity — and doing your part to advance your foundation’s mission.
- Steward philanthropic resources
As a board member, you play a precious role: You are entrusted to care for the foundation’s philanthropic resources to the best of your ability during the time of your board term.
In doing so, it’s easy to get caught up in the here and now of day-to-day operations, investment performance or community crises. But remember, while you are here for a limited period of time, the foundation must operate with a view to both past and future. You need to look back to recall why the foundation was started and what its mission and goals were when it began. Then you must look at the present to ensure that you are mindful of the mission and that your decisions are advancing the mission and the good of the community. And finally, you must look toward the future and think about how your decisions about investments and budgets today may have an impact on future generations.
- Show up and participate
It should go without saying that being an effective board member means showing up for every board meeting. Make sure you’re clear about how many board meetings are held each year and when. If you find you have multiple conflicts, it may be time to step down from your post.
You should also expect to sit on at least one board committee and attend those committee meetings as religiously as you do meetings of the full board. Committee service is a chance to lend your expertise in a certain area, but also an opportunity to learn about a new area.
Whether through committee service, a task force or individual action, if you agree to take on a project, make sure you accomplish it. You don’t want to keep the rest of the board, staff or community waiting for you to get around to the task at hand.
- Serve as an ambassador
An ambassador is a person who helps promote the foundation to the community in the course of her or his daily activities. Being an ambassador means sharing information, spotting opportunities and spreading the word about the foundation.
Using your personal connections and credibility is a big step in building the foundation’s depth and reach in the community. Attend events on behalf of the foundation when appropriate, attend site visits, make check presentations, talk about the foundation informally in the course of your life and consider making more formal presentations about your work to other community groups. At the very least, you should be able to describe the foundation’s mission and share some stories about the grants it’s made and what it has accomplished.
Remember too that consistency is important. Each individual board member should have his or her own “spin” on the description of the foundation’s work, but the key points should always be the same.
- Look around
Just because you live in a community doesn’t mean you understand what all of its needs, challenges and opportunities are. Make it your business to get to know other community leaders — from the nonprofit, business and government sectors. If there are other foundations in your area, make a point to meet with them to learn about how their approach and philosophy compares to or aligns with your own.
Remember, you can’t really fix what you don’t fully understand. Listen constantly to the voices in your community, and especially to those whom you most desire to help. Let their experience and ideas inform and guide your decision-making and shape your investment.
- Look ahead
As mentioned above in point one, board members have to take a long-term view. This is as true for grantmaking and community engagement strategy as it is for investments and financial stewardship. Take opportunities to anticipate what might be different one, five, 10 or even 20+ years from now. Do you foresee that a large local industry may move or shutter operations? Will a boom in births mean a future strain on community schools? What can you do now to prepare for that?
Planning ahead also applies to changes that may be needed in your board governance practices. How will board turnover in the next decade affect the foundation’s institutional memory? How will you transition new, younger members into board service as more seasoned members retire? How will technological advances change the way you interact with other board members or with staff?
- Continuously learn
No foundation board member knows everything. Luckily for you, philanthropy is a field that likes to share and help. Whereas in many corporate (and some nonprofit) institutions the secrets to success may be closely guarded, the knowledge and wisdom of other foundation trustees and staff are there for the asking, so build and call upon your personal networks within the field often.
As an added bonus, there has been much effort over past several decades to support “organized philanthropy” and educate those new to grantmaking about how to be good grantmakers and good board members. Membership associations such as Exponent, your regional association of grantmakers or philanthropic affinity groups are a great source of professional resources and connections. There are also vast libraries of knowledge about good governance available from organizations such as BoardSource or the Foundation Center.
- Build partnerships
No matter how large your foundation’s endowment, you will never be able to solve any community challenge on your own. True social change takes a wide variety of partners working together. While your executive or program staff may take the lead in identifying partners, you’ll also have connections and relationships you can bring to the table.
Although most foundation partnerships are forged at the staff level, where logistics and roles are hashed out, you can cement the deal by also reaching out to board members of partner organizations and forming relationships with them. You may not know every detail of how your organizations work together, but you can mutually reaffirm your shared vision and commitment — and that can go a long way when partnerships are discussed during your respective board meetings.
- Think critically and ask hard questions
You and your fellow board members are trying to do good, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t inadvertently operate unethically, or misuse funds, or construct poorly run organizations, or come up with lousy ideas.
Part of your job is to ask questions, albeit respectfully, when you get the sense that something is amiss or if you simply don’t understand what other board members are proposing.
It’s also your job to challenge assumptions. For example, just because everyone else is funding a long-revered institution in your community, does that mean you must do the same? Just because the community expects you to fund a particular issue, is it not possible that you could deliver greater value by shifting your focus elsewhere?
Asking hard questions is a board member’s job, but it can lead to discomfort or hurt feelings, so be sure to do so with an attitude of respect and appreciation for those with whom you disagree.
- Stay ethical and legal
- Duty of Care – This means caring for the interests of the foundation in terms of its management, investments and pursuit of charitable interests. It means making decisions that a prudent person would make, no matter what the circumstances.A good board member fulfills the duty of care by staying aware of the foundation’s business and operations (including investment performance), attending all board meetings fully prepared and ready to engage in discussion and maintaining an understanding of the legal and regulatory requirements that govern foundations.
- Duty of Loyalty – This means serving the best interests of the foundation above any personal interest of your own.A good board member avoids conflicts of interest (such as when he or she has a personal or professional interest in a proposed transaction) and abstains from voting or attempting to influence the outcome if a conflict is present. A good board member also understands the IRS rules about “self-dealing” on foundation boards and understands how to avoid transactions that may be called into question. (Self-dealing rules are complicated and easy to violate unwittingly, but they can carry steep penalties. It is always best to consult outside legal counsel to advise on self-dealing issues, and to attend trainings about self-dealing that are offered by many foundation member associations).
- Duty of Obedience – This means following the rules: both the internal rules of the foundation, such as bylaws or policies, and the external laws and regulations that govern foundations, so as not to jeopardize the foundation’s tax-exempt status. And, of course, it also means refraining from criminal behavior (such as theft or embezzlement) and from questionable activities, such as taking or providing excess compensation or using foundation assets or facilities for personal benefit.
- Don’t let it go to your head
Never, ever forget that, as a board member, you are in a position of service and servant leadership, period. Yes, you will sense an increase in power. (As one colleague of mine likes to point out, you automatically become better looking, smarter and wittier the second you join a foundation board.) Never fall into the trap of thinking that the foundation represents “your” money, that you can allow your personal preferences to guide your decision-making or that others who seek your assistance have to prove themselves to you.
Arrogance, condescension and superiority are the strict enemies of every foundation board member. Remember, it’s your attitude, your humility, your grace and your respect for others that will ultimately determine whether your foundation is an effective community asset and partner or a resented and disconnected institution that just happens to have money.
Serving as a foundation trustee is serious business, and it’s hard work. It can be a very public position that is fraught with temptation. But it’s also an incredibly rewarding experience that can bring you closer to your community, make you a wiser and more thoughtful person and allow you to leave a personal legacy that can have a positive impact for years to come.
© 2016 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.
When you think of what makes a foundation most effective, you may think of the CEO, key program staff or maybe the founder. But the key to a truly effective (and indeed, fully functional) foundation is its board. Good boards understand their roles and responsibilities. They know their limits, but they also embrace leadership. As a result, everyone who works within a foundation with a strong board is better positioned and supported to achieve that foundation’s mission.
What separates a ho-hum board from a truly good one? Here are 10 essentials:
- Set direction and strategy
Good boards carefully consider the foundation’s mission, vision, guiding principles, values and strategic plan. They set the tone for the foundation’s culture. For example, some boards may create a foundation in which data and academics drive every decision. Others may set a top value on building and maintaining strong relationships with grantees. In any case, effective boards set the stage and clearly define their vision, purpose and goals for staff. They make it easy for everyone to understand where the foundation is headed and how every role fits into the big picture.
- Create and maintain a healthy board
Strong boards recognize that they must pay attention to their own health and abilities. They are thoughtful and intentional about identifying the skills, experiences and qualities needed among board members to lead effectively. They recognize that leadership of any community asset requires voices from the community served, and thus they make an effort to learn from those the foundation wishes to help.
Good boards have well-defined processes for recruiting new board members and for orienting them to their responsibilities — both to the foundation and to the community. They provide training in philanthropy overall and in the specific program areas in which the foundation invests. They also provide ongoing opportunities for all board members to be engaged in the leadership of the foundation.
And of course, the best boards hold themselves accountable. They are clear about their roles and expectations for themselves, as a group and as individuals. And, although the need may be rare, they have protocols for asking non-contributing or overly disruptive board members to step aside.
- Successfully make grants
A large part of foundation activity revolves around grantmaking, and conscientious boards make a point of doing that well. They invest time and thought into how their grantmaking focus and process will deliver the most value to the community.
In addition to creating a clear mission and goals, as mentioned above, smart boards also spend time working with staff to develop clear grantmaking strategy. While program staff often have the needed expertise to inform decisions about priorities, guidelines and practices, good boards make sure they ask questions and completely understand staff recommendations before approving them.
Boards also have a role to play in deciding how the foundation will review and respond to proposals. Skilled boards strive for a balance between collecting needed information from applicants and overburdening them with a needlessly laborious process. They also work with staff to identify the ways in which they will track the progress and impact of their grantmaking.
Most importantly, effective boards realize the value of learning from each grant experience, and from the community served. They have systems in place to help them do so. They use the knowledge they gain to continually hone, refine and improve their grantmaking.
- Oversee investments and finances
It is absolutely the board’s responsibility to manage and oversee the foundation’s financial condition and its investment portfolio. While it is perfectly OK (and often wise) to delegate day-to-day investment management to a finance committee or outside managers, never forget that the board has ultimate responsibility for the foundation’s assets.
Strong boards set the parameters for risk and return, identify the investment vehicles with which they are comfortable investing, create profiles for the kinds of managers they desire, choose investment managers and oversee the performance of investment portfolios. These boards are not afraid to speak up if they detect that a foundation’s assets are being managed in a way that is counter to their wishes.
Boards also are ultimately responsible for overseeing a foundation’s budget and expenses, although the daily aspects of that task most often fall to the CEO and senior staff. Effective boards recognize that they are an important part in a system of budgetary checks and balances with the CEO, and that they have the final say in how foundation funds are spent.
- Be ethical and legal
It should go without saying, but foundation boards assume all responsibility for making sure they, and the foundation’s staff, adhere to legal and regulatory standards. Creating a set of clear governing documents, such as articles of incorporation, bylaws and operating policies, at the outset can give the board long-term guidance and a touchstone for all decisions. (I know of one foundation board that listens annually to a reading of its entire founding document.)
Of course, a board is also bound to comply with all federal and state requirements governing private foundations. This includes a wide range of Internal Revenue Service regulations, including paying excise tax on net investment income, meeting the 5% annual payout requirement and avoiding self-dealing. (Self-dealing is a complicated issue. It can be generally defined as a transaction between a between a foundation and a person closely connected to that foundation from which the person in question derives inappropriate benefit. However, there are many aspects and exceptions to self-dealing rules, so I strongly suggest that board seek legal consultation and take advantage of training to full understand this aspect of governance.)
While legal issues may be fairly clear, setting standards for and adhering to ethical behaviors can be more murky. Savvy boards have documents that set forth ethical guidelines, such as conflict of interest statements and codes of conduct that keep ethics in the forefront. And, of course, wise boards consistently remember that they are operating in the public interest and make decisions accordingly.
- Operate an effective board
Nothing speaks to the quality of a foundation board like a board meeting. These gatherings are where a great deal of a board’s work gets done. Unfortunately, it’s also where dysfunctional relationships and poor management practices often rear their ugly heads. Effective boards gather with a clear understanding of the purpose of each meeting, the work that must get accomplished during that meeting and the “rules of engagement” (aka policies and procedures) that will guide discussions. These practices allow board members to build positive, supportive relationships with one another that provide immense value when difficult conversations arise.
In addition, high-quality boards recognize that board meetings are just one way to carry out board business. They form committees to dive deep into specific areas of responsibility, such as finance or board recruitment. When possible and appropriate, they invite community stakeholders to take part in committee discussions, so as to better inform the board’s understanding of issues and to avoid myopia. These boards also recognize the value of retreats that take them away from other distractions for a day or two so they can focus intently on the deeper issues of vision, mission and strategy.
Finally, good boards regularly evaluate their own performance, honestly considering their effectiveness, asking for feedback from staff leadership and setting their own goals for development, both as a board and as individual board members.
- Plan for future board and staff leadership
Although I can point to several foundations for whom this is not the case, I strongly believe that good boards have term limits and plan continually for future leadership. Even family foundations can benefit from opening board positions to a rotation of siblings, children or cousins — and also to nonfamily community members.
Effective boards have a clear plan of transition for leaders who come up through the ranks. For example, newer board members are groomed for executive committee service; and within the executive committee, vice chairs learn from and then become chairs, who in turn learn from and then become chairs emeritus. Good boards pay attention to providing necessary preparation and coaching every step of the way for all members, from new arrivals to retiring leaders.
In addition to carefully considering and grooming their own successors, these boards apply the same consideration to developing executive leadership among foundation staff. Smart boards also recognize that tomorrow’s needs might be different from today’s, and that the types of leadership they seek and cultivate may need to change to meet those evolving needs.
- Ensure that the work of the foundation is accomplished
Great boards understand that the buck stops with them. They also understand that just because they are responsible for making sure the work gets done, that doesn’t mean they (and foundation staff) have to do every piece of the work themselves. They know their own capacity and that of the foundation staff. They realize when to delegate and when to bring in outside support or expertise.
For example, very few foundation boards insist on internal capacity for legal guidance or investment management. However, there are far too many that insist that all knowledge and expertise connected to a grantmaking initiative must be the purview of staff. Forward-thinking boards realize that program staff can benefit from outside assistance and that the foundation’s work will be better and more efficiently accomplished in that manner.
- Serve as community leader
Effective foundation boards think about their leadership role not just within the foundation itself but as a whole in the communities they serve. By their own actions and investments, foundations can draw attention to specific community issues, rally a broad base of support and even help change a community’s mind-set or conversations.
Foundation leadership may look very different from one foundation to the next, depending on the mission, the culture and the community. For example, a foundation board may choose to make a big bet and invest heavily to tackle one seemingly intractable issue, galvanizing other investors and partners along the way. Or it might intentionally use its relationships with key city leaders to identify trends and encourage partnerships among business, government, philanthropy, and nonprofits to work together on specific issues or a common vision. Yet another option for a foundation board is to focus heavily on policy change and advocacy (within legal boundaries) in order to shape systems that impact the community.
How a board leads outside the foundation depends on its tolerance for reputational risk, the nature of its existing relationships within the community and whether it prefers to be more responsive or more strategic in its grantmaking.
- Serve as neutral convenor
Many boards often overlook one of the most powerful and effective ways that foundations can serve communities: by serving as a neutral, supportive convenor. Savvy foundation boards recognize that their foundations are generally seen as inherently nonbiased about issues, where other community organizations or individuals may take strong stances. Because of their neutral reputation, foundations can create a “safe place” for community members to discuss sticky issues in a way that makes them feel heard, respected and valued. Smart foundation boards do everything they can to maintain neutrality (to a point that feels right), including paying for accessible space for community gatherings or for professional, objective facilitators.
A foundation’s convening power isn’t limited to mitigating arguments. The best foundation boards understand the value of bringing grantees together for capacity building or professional development. They invite outside experts to present on topics that are important to community members. And they convene potential partners to discuss new ways of working together to increase effectiveness.
While these are 10 essential roles that apply universally, effective foundation boards will likely identify others based on their specific communities, structure and missions. And here is one last thought: All great foundation boards are made of great foundation board members. The roles of individuals ultimately shape the quality of the board and should not be taken lightly. For more on individual board members, read “10 Essential Roles for Foundation Board Members”.
Creating a good foundation board is hard work, but it is essential for effectively stewarding the charitable assets with which the foundation is entrusted — and it ultimately shapes the impact a foundation will have on the community it serves.
Want to learn more about the role of foundation boards? Content for this article was adapted in part from The Trustee Handbook, published by Exponent Philanthropy (2014). I highly recommend this tool for any board, veteran or new. You can also browse other board-related topics at putnam-consulting.com.
We all know how great it feels to be recognized and applauded for a job well done. In the nonprofit sector, recognition takes on even more importance because it shines a spotlight on emerging leaders and key issues, allowing us to acknowledge past progress and sustain future successes. If you are considering creating a leadership recognition program, ask yourself the following questions: Who benefits from the program? Who should be considered for recognition? How do we move beyond the award to advancing the leader’s success? Answering those questions before you get started will help you build a great program that meets your needs and acknowledges those you most want to reward.
- Who benefits from the recognition program?
Consider the following four stakeholders. Understanding who these stakeholders are and how your recognition may benefit them will help you to create a program that helps others recognize those whose work they can sustain well into the future.
- Your honorees – By acknowledging the work an individual or individuals have done to lead a nonprofit, you are opening doors to their future success. Your nod to their efforts can help them gain recognition and legitimacy in the field and among potential partners, and it may provide access to greater funding while extending their network and increasing their commitment.
- Your honoree’s organization – Just as acknowledging the leader of an organization can benefit the individual, it does the same for the organization. Your acknowledgment creates new awareness of the organization, helping it to build its capacity, collaborate with other organizations, and strengthen its reputation in the field.
- Your honoree’s field – When you honor a person for the great strides he or she took in a particular field, you shine new light on all the work being done. You can create new or heightened awareness of the issue and the various ways it is being addressed.
- Your foundation – While you are acknowledging the leaders of nonprofits, your foundation can benefit as well. You are behind the scenes funding the work of these leaders and their organizations, making their work possible—and people will take notice. Your foundation will benefit by building brand awareness, leveraging funds with future partners, and identifying new experts in the fields you support.
- Whom should you consider for recognition?
There are four areas you may want to consider for recognition. Keeping your mission in mind, you may choose to build your program around one of these, or you may consider creating awards for several—or even all— areas. Knowing that your program can evolve over time, and that you can add (or take away) categories, can make selecting one or two individuals for your first recognition program a bit easier.
- Age and stage – You can design your award program around a particular age group or those who have achieved a specific stage of development. Perhaps you want to recognize and undergraduate or graduate student, emerging leaders early in their career, or those who have contributed a lifetime of service.
- Community – You may choose to recognize emerging or well-known leaders from a specific culture or an underserved group. You could focus on the same ethnic group annually or change it each year. You could recognize women leaders or those within the LGBT community. This approach can be especially effective if your organization prioritizes women, for example, or a particular ethnic group.
- Issue area – Many recognition programs focus on one area, such as the arts, or on a specific benchmark, such as quality of care for seniors. This award may be coupled with one of the other recognition areas. For example, depending on your mission, you may choose specifically to recognize someone from the GLBT community who is doing amazing work in senior care.
- Sector – You may choose to recognize nonprofit leaders or look to those in business or government who have contributed to a designated field of interest. You could consider a business leader whose contributions to local nonprofits enhance the entire community. Or you may select a local government leader whose contributions to environmental causes throughout your region have sparked long-term, lasting, positive changes.
- How do we move forward from recognition to building the program?
Once you have made some of the big decisions—who will you recognize and what the benefits are—you will want to define ways to further the program so that it grows from being not just a recognition program but a true leadership development program. The following six building blocks will provide a continuum from saying “thank you” to developing greater leaders.
- Recognize the leader – Your first step is choosing the leader you want to recognize, pinpointing the specific reasons you have selected this person, and actually acknowledging the person. You may have a ceremony, you may send a press release to your local media, or you may contact other foundations and nonprofits to share your news. Whatever you do, you must acknowledge the recipient to the right audiences.
- Provide money or time – Often, award recipients receive a gift in the form of a financial reward or sabbatical. While this approach isn’t feasible for every foundation, it will elevate your program and increase its effectiveness. Alternatively, you could provide a smaller cash award or grant to an organization of the honoree’s choosing, coupled with some of the suggestions that follow.
- Organize a convening – Bring together current and past award recipients to let them network and share ideas. Whether you have speakers, hold a dinner, or choose some other format, the goal of this convening is to let these individuals share with and learn from one another.
- Provide access to decision makers – One of the most valuable resources leaders need is exposure to key decision makers. Provide access to business experts, nonprofit and foundation leaders, policy makers, and others so the recipients can further build their networks and their reputations among these groups.
- Offer continued training – Provide workshops and training sessions that are consistent with these leaders’ needs. Whether these sessions are in the areas of advocacy, fund-raising, organizational development, leadership skills, or other categories, professional development and continued training is always a must.
- Plan for additional support – When you first create your leadership recognition program, you may not know what else your leaders need to thrive. Keep an open mind and listen to any other ideas they raise. Mentors and peer networks may be supports they want; access to online resources or libraries may fill other needs.
Recognizing and honoring the leaders with whom you work can be valuable and strategic for your foundation. It shows a commitment to those who are among the biggest champions of the issues you care about, and provides incentive for engagement. If you are considering a recognition program, answer these questions now so that you can bring your strongest recommendations to your team when you are ready to get started.
© 2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution. Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is president of Putnam Consulting Group, Inc., a national
philanthropy consulting firm. She is also the author of the Philanthropy411 blog. She can be reached at 800-598-2102800-598-2102 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is http://putnam-consulting.com.
There is a lot of talk in philanthropy about organizational culture in foundations. I don’t know about you, but I have noticed a culture of disrespect when it comes to the way foundations deal with grantees, consultant partners, and even themselves. Luckily – in my experience – this is the exception not the norm. Still, it’s troubling. Here are three examples:
- A foundation colleague told me his foundation has a “culture of double booking meetings” including among their own staff. He said, for example, you might schedule an hour-long meeting with a colleague to discuss an important matter, and when the colleague shows up you learn you only have 10 minutes because she booked another meeting at the same time. This is apparently so ubiquitous, that my colleague is concerned about scheduling senior level leaders at his foundation to attend a meeting with senior leaders of another foundation that is of strategic importance to the foundation, because his is worried that his colleagues will double book themselves and not show up!
- A board member at a family foundation intentionally wanted to keep her grant application long and cumbersome, and refused to purchase an online application system, because she felt nonprofits should have to work for their money. Never mind the fact that her own staff would also have to shoulder a needlessly cumbersome process – assuming that nonprofits aren’t already working their tails off is ignorant at best, and downright disrespectful at worst.
- The CEO of one of the largest foundations in a state wanted to hire a consultant I know, but he wanted to unilaterally change the consultant’s payment terms, because the foundation was concerned about its “cash flow ” This CEO then was shocked when the consultant insisted on a signed contract and a partial payment
in advance before starting the project and buying a plane ticket for travel. Let’s think for a moment: If someone you were working with indicated that there may be problems with cash flow, wouldn’t you want to secure some portion of payment up front? And who would you expect to have greater cash flow needs, a very large foundation or a solo practitioner consultant?
I am positive that none of the foundation staff or trustees in these anecdotes intended any disrespect. I’m also pretty sure that it never crossed their minds that they were being disrespectful to people who could have been strong allies. So how does a grantmaker avoid behaving disrespectfully? Here are three things to try:
- Flip the tables. Because so many people want to please grantmakers, they often don’t question them. Therefore, as you ask things of others, be sure to put yourselves in their shoes. Consider the burden you’re asking them to lift and make sure it’s not disproportionate to your own.
- Listen carefully. In any of the cases above, it would take courage for the disrespected party to speak up about what they perceive as shabby treatment. Standing up for yourself to your boss, or your funder, or your client takes some guts. So if someone expresses a concern to you about their situation, be sure to listen carefully and honor what they’re saying. Brushing them off as whining may mean you lose a valuable resource or asset.
- Do no harm. There are SO many ways in which foundations think they’re doing good, when actually they’re causing problems. I call this delusional altruism. Next time you’re about to enact a policy, or create a process, or anything else that you think will provide a benefit, run it up the flagpole with those who will be expected to comply to make sure you’re not doing more harm than good.
What Respectful Philanthropy Looks Like
Fortunately, for every example of disrespect in philanthropy, there are many examples of what respectful philanthropy can look like.
This example comes from one of my clients, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. It’s a statement of Grantee Experience Standards that the Foundation developed after asking for and listening carefully to grantee feedback about the grantmaking process:
Grantee Experience Standards
The David and Lucile Packard Foundation wants all grantees to have a positive experience working with the Packard Foundation. We promise grantees the following:
- You will be provided with realistic expectations about the proposal process and timing.
- You will receive a response to your email or phone inquiry (or a notification that the Foundation staff member you are contacting is out of the office) within three days.
- When you speak to a program officer, you will receive clear communication about the subprogram strategy and where the work of your organization fits into that strategy.
- You will receive a response to your final report within 60 days in which we acknowledge and comment briefly on the substance of your work.
We greatly value grantee communication directly with our program staff to provide feedback on any part of the grantmaking process.
If you would like to provide feedback to us directly….
You get the picture. The Packard Foundation makes it clear that they view each grantee’s time and expertise as every bit as valuable as their own staff time and expertise. As the statement continues, they even offer both direct and confidential portals through which grantees are encouraged to provide feedback on their experience – with the promise of a foundation response when appropriate.
That is a great example of the culture of respect that should pervade every philanthropic institution. Kudos to the Packard Foundation, and to all of the rest of you who make respect a core part of your daily work.
As I mentioned above, the culture of disrespect is currently the exception, not the rule. But just like any other bad habit, if left unchecked it can quickly become the norm. Let’s not let that happen. Let’s commit to working respectfully, always.