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Foundations and the Common Good

April 26, 2010

Rosenman_large Few would deny that the social, environmental, and public health problems we face are growing more complex. Or that the consequences of the global financial crisis have put additional pressure on most organizations to do more with less.

At the same time, the idea that philanthropy could be more effective in pursuit of its goals has been a topic of conversation for at least a decade. Indeed, the "golden age" of philanthropy ushered in by the tech and dot-com boom of the mid-1990s has given rise over the years to a number of concepts (capacity building, organizational effectiveness, impact assessment) and frames (venture/high-engagement philanthropy, strategic philanthropy, social justice philanthropy) that seek to illuminate and address the shortcomings of institutional philanthropy.

Mark Rosenman, professor emeritus at the Union Institute and director of Caring to Change (C2C), a project conducted in collaboration with the Aspen Institute's Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, is the latest to attempt such a synthesis -- and he's done a bang-up job of it.

But first, some background. As Rosenman explains in a new essay and report, the C2C project was conceived with

the premise that while many philanthropists and foundations seek to address deep-seated problems and affect broad-based change, too much grantmaking fails to have lasting, truly consequential, and verifiable impact. Although foundations' grantmaking has accomplished much of extraordinary significance, it is not the purpose of this project to celebrate those achievements. At its heart, [C2C] is an endeavor that aims to be critical and constructive at the same time....

In service of that goal, Rosenman and his colleagues had in-depth conversations with more than fifty leaders in the field and interviewed over a hundred staffers at foundations, nonprofits, and other organizations. All that information and feedback went into the drafting of a working paper that presented suggestions for improved grantmaking strategies. Additional input was then solicited at a retreat of nonprofit and foundation leaders and program officers in 2009. The report based on that work, Foundations for the Common Good (74 pages, PDF), was published a few weeks ago and is beginning to make a splash.

In it, Rosenman says that the rubric of the Common Good "emerged as the unifying theme that best organized and expressed both the wisdom and the longing of those engaged by the project." What does Rosenman mean by the Common Good? In the report, he explains that from the early days of the Republic, it has always been characterized (as the U.S. Constitution puts it) "as the effort to 'establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.'"

"In this conception," says Rosenman, "as a society we get closer to the Common Good when we achieve freedom from untoward interference in our lives, as secured by the Bill of Rights. We also advance toward the Common Good when we enjoy the freedom to have equal opportunities for the pursuit of society's rewards, regardless of the circumstances of our birth, the wealth of our families or our other demographic characteristics...."

Indeed, promotion of an inclusive notion of the Common Good is the foundation on which Rosenman's frame is built. And while he acknowledges "that different people will think differently about Common Good values," he is absolutely clear about what is required of foundations:

[I]t is the whole which must be engaged by foundations. It is this process of grounding grantmaking in the Common Good, of finding its meaning and identifying its implications for actions, that needs to guide foundations. It requires conversation and argument across differences within and outside foundations, and like other institutions in our society, it needs to be given formal priority and have specific procedures to continually reach and refine answers. Without constant and sufficient attention to the Common Good, foundations certainly will produce individual goods in service to some narrower interests -- but may do so in ways which fail to achieve their full or enduring power or which may inadvertently harm the social whole....

Foundations for the Common Good is more than a theoretical exercise, though. In fact, the second half of the report lays out three broad strategies that emerged during the project as central to the C2C vision: 1) philanthropy's role is to advance the Common Good; 2) foundations should promote diversity and vigorous equal opportunity/outcomes; and 3) foundations should work to connect analyses, programs, organizations, and people. For each, the report offers specific suggestions as to how to advance that work. The suggestions include:

  • Foundations should acknowledge the centrality of the Common Good and define the core values that motivate their work.
  • Foundations should consider grantmaking for programs that intend to explicitly instill, reinforce, and animate Common Good values.
  • Foundations should affirm that diversity is a central concern in all program areas and for general support grants.
  • Foundations should support nonprofit organizational development initiatives that address concerns of diversity and which vigorously pursue equality of opportunity/outcomes.
  • Foundations should convene grantees that are potential collaborators, but don't compel partnerships.
  • Foundations should create systems-reform opportunities by collaborating with other foundations.

It's an interesting list and well worth checking out (you can find the complete list below the jump).

But that's enough for now about the report. What do you think? Does philanthropy need a new framework to drive greater impact and effectiveness? And if so, is promotion of the Common Good, as laid out in Rosenman's thoughtful report, the right frame?

Share you thoughts in the comments section....

The core theme and two strategy areas related to Caring to Change's vision are:

1. Philanthropy's role is to advance the Common Good. Foundations should draw their authority and informing guidance from basic American values in serving the broader Common Good no matter what their specific mission. The Common Good is best served by grantmaking to advance change as well as to provide charity and support institutions.

Suggested strategy: Foundations should seek clarity about how they intend to serve the Common Good beyond simply serving a narrower mission. To that end, foundations should:

  • Acknowledge the centrality of the Common Good and define the core values that motivate their work.
  • Revisit their mission statement and seek clarity about how it defines and frames mission in the context of philanthropy's broad role.
  • Assess and elaborate their overall grantmaking strategies in the context of the larger definitions of their role.
  • Consider grantmaking for programs that intend to explicitly instill, reinforce, and animate Common Good values.
  • Support efforts that bring their grantees' values to the fore.

2. Foundations should promote diversity and vigorous equal opportunity/outcomes. Foundations should be clear that working to fully define and serve the Common Good and the effective pursuits of missions require...the equitable participation of all sectors of society.

Suggested strategy: Foundations should fully acknowledge, in their words and deeds, that part of their essential role is to promote the Common Good for all members of society, and that in order to fulfill that role, they will lead efforts to promote diversity and vigorously pursue equal opportunity internally as well as in their grantmaking. To that end, they should:

  • Create supportive environments and provide resources for foundation and nonprofit leaders to address diversity.
  • Affirm that diversity is a central concern in all program areas and for general support grants.
  • Support nonprofit organizational development initiatives that address concerns of diversity and which vigorously pursue equality of opportunity/outcomes.
  • Make seed grants to nonprofit organizations that wish to establish "diversity steering panels."

3. Foundations should work to connect analyses, programs, organizations, and people. Problems are related, but too often grantmaking is not. Foundations need to work for more coherence in their efforts by locating their missions in the Common Good and by exploring and addressing the relationships between and among various issues and problems.

Suggested strategy: Foundations should promote learning, collaboration, and synthese across fields, divisions, and organizations to yield benefits for their specific missions and to advance the Common God. To that end, foundations should:

  • Support and design initiatives that bring together leaders of disparate organizations and provide them with the opportunity to explore commonalities and build collaboration, as well as to set their efforts in the context of the Common Good.
  • Support the efforts of grantees that share analyses and a sense of the Common Good to widen their circle.
  • Strive for comprehensive overviews in every program area.
  • Provide funding for the development of collaborations and support the building and maintenance of partnerships in service to the Common Good.
  • Convene grantees that are potential collaborators, but don't compel partnerships.
  • Create systems-reform opportunities by collaborating with other foundations.
  • Support programs that link services, advocacy, and civic participation.
  • Encourage all grantees to at least consider public policy.
  • Recognize that the costs of initiating, developing, and operating strategic collaborations go beyond normal program activities, that they serve the Common Good, and that participation in them itself requires financial support.
  • Assess the success of collaborations, their continued institutionalization, and contributions to the Common Good as grant outcomes above and beyond direct program accomplishments.

To learn more about the C2C project and/or to read or download a copy of Foundations for the Common Good (74 pages, PDF), click here.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Melissa  |   April 28, 2010 at 01:22 PM

While this report brings up a number of great points, I am disappointed in the lack of mention of the need to focus directly on marginalized communities, those who need the most. A rising tide does not raise all boats, at least not equally. If philanthropists are truly interested in advancing the common good, the most direct way is through focusing on those suffering the most. Structural inequality must be responded to directly, by addressing the systemic roots of the issues.

Posted by Mark Rosenman  |   April 29, 2010 at 01:38 PM

I urge you to give the report a careful reading, Melissa. I believe that you will find the concerns you express addressed powerfully both implicitly and explicitly -- although perhaps not with the frame you might expect. If you'd like to chat with me about why I believe that to be true, please feel encouraged to contact me directly: mark@caringtochange.org.

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