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5 Questions for...Mark Rosenman, Director, Caring to Change

May 14, 2010

(A few weeks ago, I blogged about Foundations for the Common Good, a new report issued by the Caring to Change project, whose director, Mark Rosenman, was until recently Distinguished Professor of Public Service at the Union Institute in Cincinnati. Earlier this week, I caught up with Rosenman and asked him a few questions about the report and the Caring to Change project.)

Philanthropy News Digest: The report you and your colleagues released is based on the notion that foundations' principal grantmaking strategy has been to support innovation in relatively narrow program areas. Is that a recent development? Or is it intrinsic to the foundation form and foundation culture?

Rosenman_headshot Mark Rosenman: Following the advent of "scientific philanthropy" about a century ago, the foundation trend line has been to define problems more narrowly and be more specific in programs to remediate them. I think that process builds its own self-reinforcing imperative and that its influence over foundation grantmaking has grown in recent decades. While that process certainly can advance expertise, when faced with the limited impact of past and current efforts, foundations look for better, more innovative program ideas. Too often, the search for those ideas does not begin with a re-examination of fundamental purposes and assumptions, nor does it include values.

PND: The report argues that foundations, as agents of change, would be more effective if their grantmaking was informed by a "vision of the Common Good." How do you define that term? And how does your rubric of the Common Good differ from traditional notions of social good and/or public benefit?

MR: Foundations for the Common Good contains an entire essay on what is meant by that term. Suffice it to say here that it means benefit to the broadest swath of people in ways which advance society's "most choiceworthy" ways to live. Benefitting the broadest swath means that we need to better understand how problems fit together and how disparate types of programs can be more effective when better connected to one another. Realizing the "choiceworthy" part requires that our full diversity be equitably engaged in continuing conversation about the values which undergird our work in service to the Common Good. I know all of that sounds pretty lofty, but it's generally not too difficult to approach even "mission-restricted" grantmaking creatively to better move toward that broader goal.

The Common Good, as we use the term, differs from "social good and/or public benefit" by holding that organized philanthropy's -- foundations' -- fundamental role needs to be more than simply aggregating the production of separate, discrete goods and benefits.

PND: The report lays out three broad roles for foundations working to create social change: as advocates for an inclusive notion of the Common Good; as vigorous promoters of diversity and equal opportunity outcomes; and as "connectors," of analyses, programs, organizations, and people. Which of those three is the most important in your view?

MR: While we've tried to address strategies in each of those three areas -- and have acknowledged that progress in any of them likely will benefit society by increasing the effectiveness of organized philanthropy -- we really see this as a package deal. You can't really serve the Common Good without addressing diversity/opportunity as both a means and an end or without broadening analyses, organizations and programs; they become instrumental and essential to that purpose.

PND: Do you think Americans in general are a caring people? How do you respond to folks who say we have become less caring and empathetic over the last thirty years or so?

MR: Most of us, I think, see and feel ourselves to be caring people, and I'm unaware of any data that suggests Americans are losing this quality. I do believe, however, that the ways we institutionalize and express those sentiments may be seeing some erosion. For many individuals, socially-networked giving and consumption-philanthropy may have more of a personal than an altruistic payoff. For corporations, cause-related marketing departments have replaced company foundations. For the wealthiest among us, belief in the wisdom of the individual entrepreneur seems to have supplanted a willingness to invest in communities' animation and activism. Finally, movement toward melded nonprofit charities/for-profit corporations caters as much to interest in doing well as it does in doing good.

PND: How will you know whether your recommendations have resonated with foundations? And what if they don't? Do you have other activities in the works?

MR: The Caring to Change project has engaged a lot of people and Foundations for the Common Good is beginning to generate some notice. Our hope is that the rubric of the Common Good and the associated strategy suggestions will be useful to some funders who want to expand their grantmaking repertoire or even step back and look at their entire operation as grounded in this broader sense of philanthropy's role in society.

But, of course, speeches, discussions, and reports don't really change anything. The rubric is a tool, but it takes people who want to improve foundations' effectiveness and who see service to the Common Good as useful in guiding that process to pick it up and use it. If they don't, then this project will not have advanced the Common Good in any material way, although it may have helped some people to think a little differently and more critically about their work. And that will have some kind of payoff, I'd guess.

As for me, I want to spend some more time, if I’m afforded the opportunities, to try to speak to the value that Caring to Change has found in the Common Good and in work to advance this rubric. I’ll figure out what's next, next.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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