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7 posts from May 2019

Trends and Transitions in Education Reform and Philanthropy

May 13, 2019

Philantopic_denver_public_schoolsA few months ago, Susana Cordova, the new superintendent of Denver Public Schools, released her one-hundred-day entry plan. Having survived a divisive selection process and a difficult teacher strike at the beginning of her tenure, Cordova took a moment to ask the question: "What does it take to ensure that every child in our city thrives?"

With the release of her plan, she has put forth a vision that includes students, families, and staff working together to ensure that students do exactly that, with an emphasis on the need for her administration to reach out with new and intentional modes of engagement that ensure inclusion of all members of the community.

After reading the plan — and with Cordova's commitment to families front and center — my lingering question for Denver's education eco-space is whether the philanthropic community is willing to get behind community empowerment and advocacy as part of the solution. In order to do that, funders will need to be less prescriptive of the solution and more authentically responsive to what families say are their most critical needs.

Recently, Grantmakers for Education released its Trends in Education Philanthropy Benchmarking Surveywhich takes the pulse of and tracks trends in national education philanthropy. The results reflect a number of changes in education philanthropy, including a greater focus on the "whole learner," as well as deeper investments in postsecondary education and workforce career readiness. A notable finding of the report is that among respondents to the survey, more than 60 percent provided funding for community and family engagement, and many anticipate growth in those investments over the next two years. The report also notes that among the factors or trends funders identified as having the greatest potential impact, engagement with learners' families ranked near the top, while a number of respondents emphasized the role of community organizing in driving and sustaining local school system change.

For more than ten years, a group of local Denver funders — now known as the Colorado Education Organizing (CEO) Funders Collaborative — have worked together to help sustain the education organizing community in our region. As a  group, we  share the view: 1) that foundations have the power to either validate or legitimize entire fields of work due to philanthropy's outsized power and influence; 2) that collaboration among funders can foster and incentivize collaboration among grantees; and 3) that districts and schools often fail to develop a clear vision that permanently places families and students at the decision-making table. Our grantmaking focuses on involving communities of color and communities who are living in poverty to help determine solutions, instead of funders telling communities what they need.

Three years ago, Rose Community Foundation launched Climb Higher Colorado to create a bridge between grassroots and "grasstops" organizing and high-impact family engagement strategies. Both the CEO Funders Collaborative and Climb Higher are thriving, but the reality is that not all funders, in Denver or nationally, view community engagement and family engagement as key to changing educational outcomes. Even more truthfully, many funders are uncomfortable with the notion that communities should bring solutions to us, rather than the other way around.

The Benchmarking Survey highlights the important and difficult question: "How will we navigate the challenge of sharing power with those who have historically had little, especially on occasions when their ideas differ from our own?" Which foundations have the appetite for and courage to take that risk? The Denver education environment is changing. Many school districts locally and across the country are experiencing strategy changes with new leaders. Many local funders — including Rose Community Foundation — are in the process of determining how we must evolve, deepen, and in some cases pivot from our current path.

Philantopic_headshot_janet_lopezWhat we hope emerges from this era of change is greater willingness among education funders and those in power to enable local communities drive and shape their own education systems.

Janet Lopez is a senior program officer for education at Rose Community Foundation, where she works to help all children achieve academic success in the K-12 public school system.

Weekend Link Roundup (May 11-12, 2019)

May 12, 2019

0510_flooding_CNNA weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Communications/Marketing

There’s been an email marketing paradigm shift in the nonprofit sector, writes Caroline Fothergill on the npEngage site. Whereas the size of a list used to be all that mattered, "collectively [we've] come to realize the value of quality over quantity." Today, open and click rates are where it's at, and Fothergill shares some practical advice designed to help nonprofits improve their results in both areas.

Criminal Justice

"As a person who uses drugs," writes Louise Vincent on the Open Society Foundation's Voices blog, "I know that no one person is to blame. What is responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths from drug overdose is a broken drug policy, a system that prioritizes punishment over treatment, and a culture of prohibition that leads us to use drugs alone and in shame." 

Health

What does it take to build fair opportunities for health in rural communities? On the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Culture of Health blog, Whitney Kimball Coe,  coordinator of the National Rural Assembly, a movement geared toward building better policy and greater opportunity across the country, shares some of the lessons she has learned in her work.

Book reading has been declining for decades, and language and communications experts are concerned. Markheim Heid, a health and lifestyle writer, takes a closer look at the research — and the implications for society.

Higher Education

It's time to shift the social contract of education away from short-term job training toward long-term development, writes David M. Perry, a former professor of history, on the Pacific Standard site. And free college has to be part of that shift.

In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols, author of the Death of Expertise, argues that the idea that students on college campuses should have "a say in the hiring and firing of faculty whose views they merely happen not to like...is a dangerous development — a triple threat to free speech, to the education of future citizens, and to the value of a college education." Readers of Nichols' article respond.

On the Charity Navigator blog, Emily B. Tyree, associate director of communications at Action Against Hunger, shares three ways mothers in developing countries are finding ways to deal with hunger and food insecurity and making a critical difference for their children and  communities.

Nonprofits

"[T]he lack [of resources] from which the nonprofit sector suffers is...a mindset," argues Nell Edgington. "But a mindset that can be overcome."

Lots of good posts on the the GuideStar blog. Be sure to check out "What Does It Take to Be Happy at Work?" by Nadia Elboubkri and Ruby Johnson; "Boost Your Fundraising by Centering Your Audience in Your Content and Engagement Strategy" by Brad (Schenck) Caldana; and "Fundraising Lessons from Freddie Mercury & Queen" by Barbara O'Reilly.

How is the nonprofit sector like Game of Thrones? Nonprofit AF's Vu Le explains.

Philanthropy

On the Heron Foundation blog, Jasmine McGhee, a communications associate at the foundation, chats with Mary Jo Mullan, who wore many hats at the foundation from 1992 to 2009, about why philanthropies should place general operating support front and center in their grantmaking strategies.

Pam Foster, a lawyer and strategic operations specialist with more than twenty years' experience in the philanthropic sector, looks at the growing field of collaborative philanthropy in a post on the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog and explains how collaboratives can help new grantmaking organizations benefit from lessons learned by those who preceded them.

On Glasspockets' Transparency Talk blog, Genevieve Boutilier, a program associate at the Peace and Security Funders Group, suggests that "simply understanding who and what gets funded is only the start of the conversation" and that without more timely, detailed data, the sector will never be able to answer "tough questions...like: Why are certain regions, issues, and strategies underfunded? Why are certain populations prioritized over others? Why isn't awarding general operating support increasing, especially given the ample evidence that suggests that it’s a best practice? Why are certain kinds of grantees passed over for funding?"

And in the latest issue of Town & Country, Melinda Gates talks to activist and entertainer John Legend about about giving, her family, and her plans to change the world.

(Photo credit: CNN)

That's it for this week. Got something you'd like to share? Drop us a note at mfn@foundationcenter.org

Philanthropy Has Changed How It Talks — But Not Its Grantmaking — in the Decade Since NCRP's 'Criteria' Was Released

May 10, 2019

Ncrp-image-1-234x300It's been ten years since NCRP released Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best. As I reflect on the animated response to the report, I'm struck by how far the sector has come since 2009 — and, paradoxically, by how little has changed.

Our decision to publish Criteria was, shall we say, controversial. That NCRP had the temerity to assert that any set of criteria be applied to the field of philanthropy, let alone criteria grounded in our belief that grantmakers needed to prioritize marginalized communities and support grassroots-led problem solving to address the systemic inequities and injustices confronting communities in America every day, had more than a few people aghast.

Here's a sampling of the some of the pushback:

"[NCRP's] hierarchy of ends is breathtakingly arrogant." — Paul Brest, former president, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, in the Huffington Post, 2009

"We reject the use of a single template to promote effective philanthropy." — Steve Gunderson, former president, Council on Foundations, 2009

"In the NCRP worldview, philanthropic freedom is not only at risk, it's an oxymoron." — Heather Higgins, former VP, Philanthropy Roundtable, in Forbes, 2009

Criteria earned NCRP new fans and more than a few critics. But when I consider the many books published in the last few years that have been critical of the field, I'm pretty sure that if we released the report today, few would bat an eyelash.

What's changed?

Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best: At A Glance

Criteria offered the following aspirational goals for grantmakers looking to maximize their impact in the world:

Criterion I: Values

...contributes to a strong, participatory democracy that engages all communities.

a) Provides at least 50% of its grant dollars to benefit lower-income communities, communities of color, and other marginalized groups, broadly defined.

b) Provides at least 25% of its grant dollars for advocacy, organizing, and civic engagement to promote equity, opportunity, and justice in our society.

Criterion II: Effectiveness

...invests in the health, growth, and effectiveness of its nonprofit partners.

a) Provides at least 50% of its grant dollars for general operating support.

b) Provides at least 50% of its grant dollars as multiyear grants.

c) Ensures that the time to apply for and report on the grant is commensurate with grant size.

Criterion III: Ethics

...demonstrates accountability and transparency to the public, its grantees, and constituents.

a) Maintains an engaged board of at least five people who include among them a diversity of perspectives — including those of the communities it serves — and who serve without compensation.

b) Maintains policies and practices that support ethical behavior.

c) Discloses information freely.

Criterion IV: Commitment

...engages a substantial portion of its financial assets in pursuit of its mission.

a) Pays out at least 6% of its assets annually in grants.

b) Invests at least 25% of its assets in ways that support its mission.

 

Philanthropic sector discourse has come a long way in the last decade

It has become commonplace for foundation staff to talk publicly about trusting grantees with long-term general support, investing in marginalized communities, and funding structural change.

An ecosystem of philanthropic support organizations devoted to spotlighting the unique needs of marginalized people has flourished with the help of foundation funding.

Equity, justice, and even power have become watchwords for an ascendant progressive philanthropy that is happy to speak openly in the digital pages of sector publications and the well-lit stages of the conference circuit about the kinds of values Criteria for Philanthropy at Its Best embodies.

The core idea expressed in the publication — that foundations should be held to a higher standard of equity and community impact — has moved from the margins of sectoral discourse to its center.

The bottom line: The money didn't follow

NCRP's analysis of Candid data shows that the share of domestic foundation giving by the country's one thousand largest foundations for the intentional benefit of marginalized people — a category that, statistically speaking, includes most of the country — inched up from 28 percent to 33 percent between 2009 and 2015.

What do we mean by "marginalized communities"?

There are populations that experience disparities, are politically disenfranchised, or are otherwise marginalized by those with more power and privilege. Funders may use other terms such as "disadvantaged," "vulnerable," "at-risk," "underserved," or "underresourced."

NCRP's definition is intentionally broad and includes (but is not limited to) eleven of the special populations tracked by Candid — i.e., economically disadvantaged; racial or ethnic minorities; women and girls; people with AIDS; people with disabilities; aging, elderly and senior citizens; immigrants and refugees; crime/abuse victims; incarcerated and formerly incarcerated; single parents and LGBTQ citizens.

 

Over the same period, foundation support for structural change strategies, the work that truly transforms systems of deprivation and injustice, declined to less than 10 percent.

And general support grantmaking has remained flat at around 20 percent of domestic giving.

Some notable funders stepping up

A handful of innovative, courageous institutions have deeply transformed the way they make grants, and many of those with the least wealth and power in this country are better for it.

  • The California Endowment, once a skeptic about funding advocacy, is now a field leader as it pursues its mission to expand access to affordable, quality health care for marginalized Californians.
    In 2003, 17 percent of the foundation’s grantmaking was for social justice work. In 2015, that number had jumped to 73 percent.

  • The NoVo Foundation has accelerated institutional change in support of marginalized communities and social justice.
    In 2004, 31 percent of the foundation’s grantmaking supported marginalized communities and 14 percent went to social justice causes. By 2015, 100 percent of NoVo's grantmaking supported social justice for women and girls, Indigenous communities, and other marginalized people.

  • The Bush Foundation stepped up its efforts to make Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota better places to live for all residents, including members of the twenty-three Native nations in the three-state region.
    Between 2003 and 2015, the foundation increased the share of its grantmaking that benefits the region's marginalized communities from 39 percent to 83 percent.

  • The Weingart Foundation has made a public commitment to funding equity efforts in Southern California.
    Between 2003 and 2015, the foundation’s support for marginalized communities increased from 41 percent to 76 percent of its grantmaking. And in 2016, the foundation announced "a long-term commitment to base all of our policy and program decisions on achieving the goal to advance fairness, inclusion, and opportunity for all Southern Californians — especially those communities hit hardest by persistent poverty."

While the above examples can be considered clear signs of progress, the data and my own observations of the sector suggest that while the majority of foundations have grown comfortable with the language and concepts embodied in Criteria, not much has changed.

A shift in philanthropic rhetoric is a necessary first step toward a more just and equitable sector. But without accompanying actions, the words ring hollow.

Two lessons for changing philanthropic norms and practices

NCRP's board, staff, and allies firmly believe that now is the time for grantmakers to walk the talk. Our democracy is increasingly threatened by growing economic inequality, political disenfranchisement, and the resurgence of white nationalist rhetoric and violence.

We have had deep, reflective conversations among ourselves about how to get the sector to take action and have identified two takeaways that will inform our strategies in the years ahead:

1. Social movements — people power — are the best hope for changing the way money and power moves in philanthropy. Mass movements, from labor to civil rights to LGBTQ rights, have wrought the deepest transformations in American society — and the philanthropic sector has been similarly shaped, at least in part, by those societal shifts.

Through our nonprofit membership program, we've renewed our focus on building a vibrant community of grassroots nonprofit organizations eager to advocate for foundations to support their rhetoric with their resources.

A few weeks ago, we launched the Movement Investment Project, which articulates new data, new norms, and a new vision for how foundations and donors can and should relate to and support social movements, grounded in the experience, needs, and knowledge of grantee leaders on the frontlines of those movements.

2. Unless the philanthropic sector reckons with its power, grantmaking is unlikely to change for the better. The concentration of resources and certain kinds of expertise at foundations lends them significant power in the broader social sector. That concentration of power will continue to be an impediment to systemic change to grantmaking trends until foundations choose to build power among their grantees, share power with communities, and wield their power, in the form of their social and political capital, to benefit marginalized people.

If you're a foundation leader comfortable with the language of equity and justice, I hope you'll be inspired to take a hard look at your grantmaking through the lens of NCRP's Power Moves toolkit, or resources such as:

Pop the hood, do a deep dive into the data, and ask yourself whether your current reality matches your rhetoric.

In times of crisis, it can be challenging to think beyond the daily headlines. But consider your legacy: In a decade or two, when you look back on this time, a time when the fate of American democracy — indeed, the fate of many species, including our own — seemed uncertain, what do you hope to be able to say about your work?

Headshot_aaron_dorfman_finalNow is not the time for business as usual. The philanthropic community has a significant amount of money and power at its disposal. It is time to start using it to support grassroots social movements.

Aaron Dorfman is president and CEO of NCRP.

Design Therapy for the Purpose-Driven Organization

May 08, 2019

Branding_Alpha Stock ImagesThe value of brand design for nonprofits or foundations — when done right — is not just in the outcome but in the process. Design is the act of (re)imagining how we see and communicate ideas. It's an opportunity to challenge assumptions, change minds, and test the status quo. Brand design, in particular, is rife with such opportunities and, of course, potential landmines. For organizations that are prepared to embark on the adventure, it can be transformative in unexpected ways. At its best, a brand redesign can reinforce and strengthen an organization's work, increase its engagement with internal and external audiences, and pave the way for real growth.

Clarity, Meet Beauty

Branding is the process of figuring out the clearest, truest manifestation of who you are as an organization through words, images, and graphics. A great brand elucidates the "who" (people and ethos) and the "why" (purpose) succinctly and clearly. And the process of getting to a great brand typically starts with a design firm gathering as much qualitative data as it can about your organization.

By data, I mean the perspectives of internal and external stakeholders; an operational values assessment; deep dives into strategic business goals, personality drivers, competitive landscape, and positioning; and audience identification. It's similar in these respects to how an organization would approach a strategic planning process.

All the insights are then distilled into a strategy that highlights key elements such as organizational personality, values, and market differentiation. This strategy guides the creation of new messaging, tagline, logo, website, and so on.

So, what's the big deal? It seems pretty straightforward.

Branding in the for-profit world is often defined in marketing terms: name recognition and consistency leading to monetary transactions and customer loyalty. Starbucks' ubiquitous global brand presence is based on and contributes to a standardization of its customers' experience. People recognize the brand immediately and know what they are going to get.

Qualitative insights, strategizing, and collateral creation are elements of any good branding process, but the real key to a stellar nonprofit brand is activation of the "purpose" driver. A successful nonprofit brand boldly states what the organization delivers and establishes a recognizable identity through the compelling expression of the organization's core mission — both visually and via messaging. It shares the "awareness" goal of for-profit branding but emphasizes mission.

Let me give you an example. When we were first approached by the Oregon Community Foundation, the organization's identity fell short of expressing its mission and incredible legacy as Oregon's largest foundation. Over the months that followed, we led the foundation through a full rebrand which resulted in a new identity system that conveys the foundation's personality (steadfast, optimistic, approachable) and approach to its work of bringing together Oregonians to create real, community-driven impact.

Change Requires Courage

The process of reimagining an organizational identity can produce both excitement and fear. Going through a rebranding process means holding up a mirror to your organization — and yourself. What you see sometimes can be disconcerting. Often, people realize that their own vision for the organization hasn't been aligned with the organization's goals, or there may be disagreement among colleagues about who gets to define what the organization is and should be.

We started using the term "design therapy" with our clients to prepare them for what they're likely to experience. Undertaking a rebranding project requires courage, patience, and a lot of effort. Any therapeutic process includes some discomfort on the road to success. Whether it's recovering from a torn muscle, processing a momentous life event, or rebranding an organization, therapy involves grappling with, ironing out, and coming to terms with hard truths — and eventually making breakthroughs and arriving at compromises that serve the greater good.

A good agency comes to this work prepared to be a guide and with real empathy and understanding for the challenges that lie ahead. Every project presents a different mix of personalities, history, mission and culture. Inviting clients into the design process builds trust, transparency, and ultimately a powerful partnership that helps organizations embrace the uncertainty inherent in the process.

The real bottom line of any nonprofit branding process, however, is the collective nature of the work. Securing equitable stakeholder buy-in from the executive team, program leaders, and the board from the very beginning ensures that team members have a chance early on to weigh in.

Bringing these (oftentimes) disparate viewpoints into alignment via the branding process usually results in a renewed sense of engagement and belonging for all. Through the work, staff and leadership gain a renewed appreciation for the potential of the organization and are invigorated by it.

The process often results in a transformational shift in the organization's culture that leads staff to see the revived brand as a platform for deeper audience engagement and growth, as well as the "why" behind their commitment to the work. Only then can designers reimagine the visual elements of the brand in ways that capture the organization's aspirations for the future, creating resonance with internal and external audiences for year to come.

When executed well, a brand redesign helps your target audiences better understand what your organization is and does and will have them thinking: "I want to be part of that."

The rest is up to you.

Philantopic_headshot_Talie-Smith copy

(Image credit: Alpha Stock Images)

Talie Smith is a partner and creative director at Smith & Connors, where she draws on her background in visual design, literature, and foundation work to help organizations understand who they are and express their identity through brand, web design, and compelling user experiences.

 

How Foundations Are Transforming Risk Into Opportunity

May 06, 2019

At the downtown Los Angeles office of Southern California Grantmakers, dozens of leading thinkers from philanthropic organizations recently gathered for a Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors' "Theory of the Foundation Seminar." The lively discussion addressed philanthropic time horizons, ways to achieve greater operational effectiveness, and driving strategic impact.

Eventually, the conversation turned to risk: the multitude of risks associated with operating in a world increasingly characterized by growing instability and need; and the importance of taking and absorbing risk as a philanthropic actor. Underlying the conversation were a number of current global trends, including:

  • growing populism and socio-political instability;
  • a backlash against private philanthropy in part based on the belief that the growing concentration of wealth is a main contributor to societal problems;
  • the expansion of what philanthropy entails to include impact investing; and
  • a renewed interest in advocacy, capital aggregation, and partnerships in philanthropy.

As the discussion revealed, risk is often believed to be innate to philanthropy, deeply tied to the sense that a philanthropist should also be an innovator, and that philanthropic giving is synonymous with risk capital. Many philanthropic organizations with sizable resources (both financial and non-financial) and the will to confront global challenges welcome this idea — in theory. In reality, however, many see risk as a barrier to strategic philanthropic giving. In part, this is because the meaning of risk itself isn't always adequately unpacked across programs, governance, and staff. As one attendee stated, "We are using the word 'risk' as if we all...agree on its meaning, but we…are not all using it the same way."

To overcome this lack of clarity, donors need to develop a clear strategy around risk. This first requires an understanding of the different types of risk and an awareness of their sources and triggers. The next step is to define specific risks for the donor or community served, as well as the sector at large, as well as methods and remedies for mitigation. Based on discussion at the seminar, generally agreed-upon types of risk fall into six main categories.

  1. Investment/Financial Risk: potential financial loss and uncertainty of "return" when engaging in economic development of communities, impact investing, or investing in a new field or project.
  2. Operational Risk: potential financial or social loss resulting from insufficient or failed human resources, procedures, systems, or policies.
  3. Grantmaking Risk: potential failure of grants, particularly when granting to new issues or people with little track record or history.
  4. Political Risk: potential adverse impact of policies, governmental decisions, political events, or conditions.
  5. Reputational Risk: damage to an organization's reputation through action deemed controversial or politically sensitive.
  6. Innovation Risk: potential failure when adopting, supporting, or creating new approaches, solutions, or technologies.

These risk types are interwoven through a range of risk determinants, influences, and considerations, which can include:

  1. time-horizon: the philanthropic lifespan of an organization, whether limited or in perpetuity, impacts intrinsic risk tolerance, as well as other related considerations including donor intent, collaboration, and resource allocation.
  2. organizational culture and values: the values and culture of an organization playa a key role in shaping its organizational approach to risk, as well as levels of risk-aversion or risk-taking among its individual staff members. 
  3. social bias vs. diversity, equity, and inclusion: the internal biases projected toward marginalized social groups can influence to whom philanthropic organizations give grants, who they employ, and the voices they seek to amplify. In many cases, organizations committed to DEI internally as well as externally will act to balance the social biases that make them risk-averse.

There was broad consensus in the room that foundations should not shy away from risk. Indeed, a better solution to enhance strategic effectiveness and impact is to address it head-on. Actionable suggestions to mitigate risk included:

  • collaborating with like-minded partners to build legitimacy and increase opportunity;
  • encouraging an internal culture of experimentation and failure;
  • explicitly devoting a designated percentage of funds or funding to higher-risk activities or investments;
  • allocating discretionary funds to risky investments;
  • building trust with the communities being served;
  • shifting hiring practices to recruit staff representative of the communities served, and with skills and knowledge to effectively address risk; and
  • creating and sharing knowledge around risk.

Rockefeller_blog_post_20190506

Within each organization, there are risk takers or owners of the various types and levels of risks outlined above. The risk takers include: 

  • philanthropies and funders
  • leaders (i.e., CEOs, executive directors)
  • staff (i.e., program officers)
  • grantees and communities served

While each of these groups absorbs a different form of risk depending on the role they play in decision-making and the philanthropic funding cycle, they, too, are impacted by the risk determinants noted above. Moreover, some groups —particularly Funders and Leaders — bear responsibility for all or most risk types. Accordingly, it falls to them to actively work to define each type of risk, develop strategies, and advance solutions designed to minimize the identified risks.

Philanthropic organizations are uniquely positioned to embrace risk and identify solutions to the world's most pressing challenges. This includes taking part in more conversations around risk and viewing failure as a learning opportunity, building an a knowledge sharing ecosystem of peers and practitioners, and taking on risk collaboratively. As one attendee noted, "Risk is about being more nimble, more reactive to the environment, and creating a platform that allows for transformation to happen, and it is the work of foundations to keep pushing these things forward."

Kalyah_olga_2Olga Tarasov is director, knowledge development at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, where she oversees and advances research, publications, and both internal and external programs. She previously worked at the National Endowment for Democracy and also has served as a spokesperson on issues affecting the region and the field of international philanthropy. 

Kalyah Ford is a senior researcher at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, Kalyah previously worked as a research and policy specialist with the World Bank Group, and drove advocacy communications at Human Rights First, developed public diplomacy policy at the United States Department of State, and worked as the Research Lead on a pan-African study for the Open Society Foundations West Africa Initiative (OSIWA).

The Privilege and Peril of Becoming a Foundation CEO

May 02, 2019

GettyImages-612396272-v2-compressorThe occasion of recruiting and hiring a new CEO presents an important opportunity for members of the board to collectively reflect on the unique challenges entailed in the leadership of a private foundation. While professional search firms usually have a profile in mind in terms of what constitutes an appropriate CEO candidate, in many ways the CEO role at a foundation is not a typical CEO position. To truly do justice to the position, the leader of a foundation should not only be able to articulate a vision, inspire confidence, and exemplify other classic qualities of leadership, s/he should also have the strength of character to manifest the unique values that characterize philanthropy at its best.

CEOs of grantmaking foundations occupy positions of immense privilege. They control access to significant sums of flexible capital and, for all intents and purposes, are accountable only to their boards. Typically, they have a significant amount of autonomy in how they choose to define their role, and it's not uncommon for a CEO to exert significant personal influence over the foundation's strategic priorities and grantmaking practices. For some boards, that equates to dynamic, visionary leadership. But there are potential pitfalls in the exercise of that privilege, and they can be damaging to the ultimate effectiveness of the institution. With the caveat that more than one of these traits often is evident in a single person, here are a few we've observed.

The CEO as Pundit

Compounding the significant privilege inherent in the CEO role is the likelihood that a foundation CEO will receive a daily shower of affirmation for his/her irreproachable wisdom and vision. To be susceptible to constant flattery is human. But unless the CEO makes a special effort to remain grounded, it's all too easy for him/her to succumb to the countless ego-gratifying opportunities to pontificate and exercise inappropriate personal influence over the agenda and daily operations of the foundation.

Internally, that can take the form of exercising an extreme form of control over every aspect of the foundation's work. Externally, a CEO may begin to feel the position qualifies him/her to offer regular opinions on the direction in which society should be moving, or even that the world of public affairs can uniquely benefit from the leadership of someone who is not beholden to the political process or company shareholders. Obviously, there is a role for foundation CEOs to speak out on issues of importance to their foundations, but it should be done in a thoughtful and intentional fashion that minimizes self-aggrandizement.

The CEO as Culture Weaver

Particularly if the CEO is embedded in a large organization, it's easy to misjudge and underestimate the unique internal management role s/he is expected to play within a foundation. Most foundations have a relatively small staff and embody something more akin to the culture of a family rather than an impersonal bureaucratized structure. That kind of culture calls for a leader who is aware of the critical importance of "soft skills" and is committed to a personalized approach to management.

Foundation CEOs also have a critical role to play in orchestrating the work of the staff. They are the one person in the organization that is uniquely situated to see the big picture and empowered to operate from that perspective. Finding the right balance in that role is a critical leadership success factor. Asking the right questions at the right time, guiding rather than controlling, and pushing for an appropriate synthesis of competing interests and ideas are essential aspects of the CEO role.

Rather than adopting a stereotypical "academic" style of leadership that by necessity cedes a high degree of autonomy to deans and departments, successful foundation CEOs should play a more integrative role, respecting and nurturing the talents of staff but also assertively articulating incentives for and the boundaries of effective cross-department collaboration that benefits the entire institution.

Above all, the CEO should take responsibility for focusing the foundation's attention and resources on opportunities within its field(s) of interest that are actionable. It takes special skill to translate compelling data and expert knowledge into a plan of action that effectively capitalizes on a foundation's unique strengths, and it takes real discernment to recognize where and how to creatively utilize the foundation's capacity for influence and maximum leverage.

The CEO as Wrangler

When it comes to dealing with the board, newly-minted CEOs display a tendency to demonstrate their leadership by asserting their point of view on every issue. Some even think that the best way to truly establish their authority is to ignore (or even disparage) the achievements of previous leaders. In the name of decisiveness, new CEOs also may feel compelled to move quickly to put their stamp on the organization and apply their spurs, as it were, to jolt their new mount into action.

In any truly mission-driven organization, however, recognizing and valuing the importance of the existing web of human relationships is another key leadership success factor. A new CEO's instinct may be to be seen as a doer able to quickly take charge. But, often, a more productive approach is to take the time to fully appreciate the talents and capabilities of current staff and observe and ask questions in order to capitalize on the strengths of the organization's existing culture before trying to introduce significant changes.

Particularly if a new CEO comes from a government or university setting and has little prior experience in working with a board of directors, it's essential that s/he invest the time and effort at the beginning of his/her tenure to understand and clarify the CEO role. No matter how much experience s/he might have in other management roles, being CEO is a qualitatively different kind of challenge. It's a role subject to ambiguity and hinges on one's ability to understand and appreciate nuance. It requires lots of intentional work to be sure everyone has a clear understanding of their respective roles, responsibilities, and organizational boundaries. Not devoting sufficient time or energy to those conversations at the outset is likely to set the stage for ongoing misunderstandings and associated difficulties.

It's also possible to overdo the listening. Foundations are notorious for taking as much as a year off from their grantmaking to think through the next phase of their evolution. The arrival of a new CEO frequently is the stimulus for a top-to-bottom assessment of a foundation's operations. Often, however, such a pause is perceived by the grantseeking public as self-indulgent and rarely of enough benefit to warrant the time and resources expended on it. Instead, it's important for new foundation CEOs to acknowledge and capitalize on whatever positive momentum they have inherited and to continue to move the herd forward while committing to learning and making appropriate adjustments in strategy and personnel along the way.

When and if the time comes to make changes in personnel, how those transitions are handled is of critical importance. Particularly if a program staff person has been part of the organization for some time, they are likely to have developed constituencies across the foundation's field(s) of interest. Organized philanthropy is a relatively tight-knit community: how people are treated by a new CEO can have significant ramifications for the reputation of the organization among its peers.

The CEO as Expert

Foundations tend to hire CEOs who are acknowledged experts in their areas of grantmaking. By that, we mean experts in the subject matter of greatest interest to the foundation. Often, experience in philanthropy itself is of secondary importance. There's a widespread belief that the era of the generalist is past, and that the future of foundations is best shaped by specialists.

Paradoxically, there can be unanticipated consequences to hiring a specialist as CEO that are not always to the benefit of the foundation. Experts tend to come with fully formed opinions about the most effective strategies to pursue. They have established networks of colleagues and may not be particularly open to expanding those networks. After all, if you're an expert, by definition you know what the best course of action is. It can also be exceedingly difficult for an acknowledged expert to extract him or herself from the details of the work to assume the critical "big picture" perspective referred to above.

Foundations are not universities or think tanks. They may manifest aspects of those institutions, but they have a unique opportunity — even an obligation — to not just follow the advice of academic experts but to look at problems in different ways, bring unexpected perspectives to bear, and craft strategies that move society forward. It's a unique space in the spectrum of organizations, and it takes a relentless curiosity and willingness to consider alternative solutions to use that privilege to full advantage. It may strike some as "old school," but a CEO whose greatest gift is a full appreciation of the potential of philanthropy may be a better fit to lead such an enterprise.

The CEO as Program Officer

It's tempting for a foundation CEO to want to also function as a kind of "uber" program officer. Having a "discretionary" grants budget at his/her disposal is a first step in that direction. It's quite common in the foundation world for a CEO to have a private pot of money from which s/he make grants at his/her discretion. When those funds are used for "corporate giving," in the sense of joining other foundation CEOs in making expected — and relatively modest — contributions to organizations or special events that support the field (e.g., to underwrite a conference), that's one thing. But it can be a slippery slope and quickly lead to more substantial resources being directed to a CEO's personal priorities, as opposed to those of the institution.

When a CEO is unable to resist being a grantmaker, it sets up several potentially unhealthy dynamics for a foundation. Grantseekers who enjoy a personal connection to the CEO quickly learn that they can sidestep the foundation's announced priorities and procedures and directly approach the CEO for support. And when they're successful, it not only sends a message to others in the community but also to those within the organization. Board members can begin to feel that it's appropriate for them to leverage their personal access to the CEO to secure funding for their own priorities, while grantmaking staff can be put in an uncomfortable, even untenable position.

A foundation may pride itself on the use of objective research and analysis in establishing its grantmaking priorities and making individual grant decisions. But when the CEO is playing by a different set of rules, it sends the wrong signal to staff about the integrity of the organization's processes and sets up an unfair competition for scarce resources. And when a CEO's personal priorities begin to consume a greater share of the foundation's grantmaking dollars, things can go sideways. Staff can be put in the position of not knowing what to anticipate. They may also have to "front" for those CEO decisions with the public while trying to keep to established procedures. Needless to say, it's not a pleasant position to find oneself in.

The CEO as Brand Icon

We live in an era where foundation boards are not just satisfied to support good work; they want to be publicly recognized for that work. As a result, the foundation world has embraced the kind of brand consciousness that was previously the purview of corporations, celebrities, and politicians. Corporate communications strategies that focus on grantee accomplishments without spotlighting the special contributions of the foundation (and its dynamic leader) are now passé.

When a foundation styles itself as a changemaker rather than as a grantmaker, the "brand promise" entails a different interpretation of the CEO role and a new set of criteria for hiring one. If a key component of a CEO's performance is to maintain a high public profile for the foundation, there is a real danger that philanthropic resources will be used to promote image and style at the expense of substance.

There's also a danger that a CEO's enthusiastic promotion of a personal brand can come to compete with the foundation's institutional brand. Some boards may not mind, but we are of the view that the foundation's mission and values, rather than any single person, should be the ultimate driver of its brand.

Securing and promoting a "name brand" CEO may be an accepted business strategy in our celebrity-obsessed culture, but the benefit to a philanthropic foundation is difficult to gauge. Indeed, as more foundations are coming to the realization that collaboration and funding partnerships are essential in addressing complex problems, a preoccupation with brand enhancement can most assuredly get in the way of genuinely collective ventures. Indeed, there is little incentive for a foundation to publicly admit to failure when it is focused on burnishing its brand as a pathfinding innovator. Foundations should think twice before heading down that path.

Headshot_julia_lopez_tom_david_compJulia Lopez is the former president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation (2008-17) and a former senior vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation, where she provided oversight, management, and evaluation of the foundation's strategic program grantmaking. She has also served in roles in the California State Legislature, the New Mexico Department of Criminal Justice, and the San Francisco Department of Social Services and currently serves on the board of public radio station KQED in San Francisco. 

Tom David advises foundations and other public benefit organizations on matters of strategy, organizational learning, and evaluation. Until July 2004, he was director of organizational learning and evaluation at the Marguerite Casey Foundation in Seattle and, prior to that, served as executive vice president of the California Wellness Foundation, vice president of the S.H. Cowell Foundation, and senior program officer at the James Irvine Foundation. David (http://www.tdavid.net/) was the recipient of the 2002 Terrence Keenan Leadership Award in Health Philanthropy from Grantmakers in Health

5 Questions for…Lori Bezahler, President, Edward W. Hazen Foundation

In 2000, Lori Bezahler was young, idealistic and running the Education and Youth Services division of a large nonprofit in New York. She came across an ad that piqued her interest: Public Education Program Officer Edward W. Hazen Foundation. Bezahler was intrigued by the foundation’s idea that organizing could be used as a tool to change the conditions that adversely affect people’s lives, with a focus on communities of color and in the area of education. So she applied for and got the job. A few years later, in 2004, Barbara Taveras, the foundation's then-president, decided to step down. The foundation's board conducted a search for Taveras's replacement and chose Bezahler.

In the decade and a half since, Bezahler and the Hazen Foundation have been in the forefront of the movement for racial justice in American society, supporting the leadership of young people and communities of color in dismantling structural inequity based on race and class. To accelerate that work at this critical juncture, the Hazen board announced in March that the foundation would be spending down its endowment over the next five years in support of education and youth organizing, with a focus on racial justice.

PND spoke with Bezahler shortly after the board’s announcement to learn more about how and why the decision to spend down was made, how it will be executed, and what the foundation hopes to achieve over the next five years.

Headshot_lori_bezahlerPhilanthropy News Digest: The Hazen Foundation was established in 1925, making it one of the oldest private foundations in the United States. For decades, the foundation focused its resources on "the lack of values-based and religious instruction in higher education." Then, in the 1970s, it began to focus on public education and youth develop­ment, and in the late '80s it shifted its focus to community organizing for school reform. In 2009, under your leadership, the foundation made another shift, and began to focus more explicitly on race as the basis of oppression. Can you speak, broadly, to the process and the people who’ve helped shaped the foundation’s evolution over the last ninety-plus years?

Lori Bezahler: I'm glad you brought up the foundation's establishment, because I think Edward and Helen Hazen, the couple who created it, were really interesting people. They were childless themselves and were involved, during their lifetimes, in a number of char­ities that focused on young people. A lot of that work influenced the founding docu­ments of the foundation and its approach from the beginning, especially the importance of thinking about young people in terms of their whole selves, thinking about character development, about the way each of us incorporates our values and our beliefs into our lives. That's been a common thread through all the years and decades of the foundation's work. And over that span of time, a couple of people have been especially important in shaping the institu­tion that is Hazen today.

The first is Paul Ylvisaker, who was well known for the urban planning and anti-poverty work he did for the Johnson administration in the 1960s and later at the Ford Foundation, before becoming a dean at Harvard. He also was a trustee of the Hazen Foundation. From what I've read of our history and in board minutes and things like that he was influential in a number of ways. One was thinking about policies and their impact in broad structural terms. The other was the decision to recommend bringing Jean Fairfax, who just passed away at the age of 98, onto the board. At the time, Jean was a young African-American woman and lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and as far as we can tell from our research, she was the first African-American woman to be appointed to the board of a national foundation. In that role, she was instrumental in bringing attention to issues of race and representation by demanding that prospective grantees of the foundation share information about the demographics of their leadership, the nature of the community they served, and whether leadership was representative of that community. Jean was instrumental in moving the foundation's board to think more intentionally about where we, as an institution, put our dollars and the importance of self-determination.

There were others who followed in her footsteps. Sharon King led the foundation for a few years in the late 1980s, and it was under her leadership that the foundation began its work in the field of community organizing, or, as Sharon used to say, with organizations that had their feet in the community, that were grounded and embedded in the com­munity and not parachuting in, and that had leadership that was representative of the community.

After Sharon left, Barbara Taveras took over as president and really built out the foundation's understanding of organizing. She was very thoughtful in considering how a foundation could and should relate to the field through partnering, listening, and acting in a learning mode, rather than a prescriptive mode.

There were also a number of people who helped move the foundation in the direction of having an explicit focus on race. The person I would call out especially in that respect is Daniel HoSang, who was appointed to the board when he was at the Center for Third World Organizing and today is an associate professor of American studies and ethnic studies at Yale. Dan was a member of the board for ten years and really championed the idea that the foundation should specify race as a focus and think about it structurally rather than individually. He was crucial in that regard.

PND: Your board recently announced that the foundation was going to spend out its endowment over the next five years. How did that decision come about?

LB: The impetus to consider a dramatic change in how the foundation does business came about as the result of a sort of fundamental questioning of the foundation's role in a time that presents us all with great challenges but also great opportunities. It's a moment that is lifting up the potential and possibilities for the very work the Hazen Foundation has spent so many years doing. The relationships we've created, in the fields of youth organizing, racial and education justice; the way we've been able to bring that kind of work into the broader philanthropic conversation and raise it up to some of our peers and partners — all that figured into it.

And all those different factors caused us to pause and say, Are we stepping up? Are we doing everything we can be doing? Clearly, there are assumptions around perpetuity in philan­thropy, and they're based on some good thinking. I'm not saying that perpetuity is ridiculous — it's not. If you look at the numbers, you actually spend more over time, it gives you the opportunity to build something and be there for the long haul.

But there are moments when it's not enough, when the damage done by misguided policies or irresponsible leadership in the short-term will have ripple effects across time that demand you think differently about how you use your resources. And when, on top of that, there's an established body of work that you can build on to do something meaningful by concentrating your resources — well then you don't really have a choice.

That was the question we asked ourselves, and the process to get to the announcement took nearly two years. We did a lot of research, everything from literature scans to interviews to surveys. We talked to lots of people in the field, including our grantees and partners. We talked to people who had served in leadership roles in other spend-down institutions and asked them what worked and what didn't work, what were the pros and what were the cons. We looked at other options besides spending down. And we did a lot of financial modeling. I mean, we conducted an enormous amount of research, because I think the board felt very strongly that if we were going to do this, if we were going to turn out the lights on this institution and the work we have been supporting over many decades, it's got to be done in a way that is meaningful. The approach was deliberate and rational, but we also did a lot of soul searching about what it all meant and whether we were doing everything possible to fulfill the mission of the institution or whether there was something different we needed to do.

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