Foundation Leadership for a New Era
January 21, 2012
The news that Peter Hutchinson had stepped down as president of the St. Paul-based Bush Foundation after four-plus years at its helm came as a surprise to many. Hired in 2007 to lead a strategic refocusing of the 55-year-old foundation's mission and grantmaking activities, Hutchinson impressed those who worked with him as a thoughtful, energetic leader, and his decision to move on left many scratching their heads.
Hutchinson himself was rather cryptic about his reasons for leaving. As he put it in a valedictory post on the foundation's blog:
[The "change"] part of this organization's journey is now complete. While I might like to believe that I can do all things well, I know that is not true. I am great at some things but only good at others. I believe there are others who will be better than me at leading the foundation through the next phase of its journey....
For some this will seem sudden. I don't believe in long good-byes. If new leadership is going to succeed, old leadership needs to get out of the way so that people in the organization and its partners can focus on the future and not the past...."
As we noted in our year-end wrap, Hutchinson is the latest in a series of foundation executives -- Greg Chaillé, Aryeh Neier, Gara LaMarche, Thomas Aschenbrener, Karen Davis, Lance Lindblom, and Gary Yates among them -- who over the last year have either stepped down or announced that they would be stepping down. With the oldest baby boomers now reaching retirement age, they'll be joined over the next decade by tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of senior-level nonprofit and foundation executives.
This rolling wave of retirements presents the philanthropic sector with both a challenge and an opportunity -- a situation not lost on the leaders of nine progressive nonprofit organizations who earlier this month released an open letter to the trustees of the $7 billion William and Hewlett Foundation. As many of you know, the foundation's president, Paul Brest, has announced he'll be stepping down this summer to return to teaching, and the letter's authors wanted to share some thoughts with the Hewlett board. After noting that the board has "no more important role than selecting [a new] CEO," they offered four suggestions for the board to keep in mind as it conducts a search for Brest's replacement. The next president of the foundation, they wrote,
- should be someone who maintains the foundation's historic commitment to philanthropic effectiveness;
- someone who understands the role that race continues to play in determining life opportunities in America;
- someone with deep experience and passion for the highest-impact grantmaking strategies of grassroots advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement;
- someone who understands the limits of "strategic philanthropy."
While the above list reflects the social justice concerns of the nonprofit leaders who issued the letter, it also raises a number of questions: What kind of qualities and experience should a foundation leader -- and I'm talking here about foundations with half a billion or more in assets, of which there are more than a hundred -- possess in the twenty-first century? Should he have had prior experience as a grantmaker? What about nonprofit or NGO experience? Should she have earned at least one advanced degree? Be fluent in a foreign language? Have visited at least half a dozen countries, including countries in Asia, Africa, and South America? Should he have at least one entrepreneurial failure on his resume? Know about and use Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter? Be able to program, or at least know the difference between Java, Perl, Python, and Ruby?
Okay, maybe the last one isn't entirely reasonable. But you get the point. In a connected, networked world where money and knowledge flow across borders at the speed of light, where rising inequality is a global phenomenon and the threats to our survival increasingly are transnational, where the metaphor of earth-as-lifeboat has never been more appropriate, effective foundation leadership is vital.
Given the reality of the power dynamics in our sector, I don't really expect anyone to weigh in on this. But I'll ask it anyway: What will (or should) effective foundation leadership look like a decade from now? Use the comments section to share your thoughts....
-- Mitch Nauffts