The Lonely Profession?
The springboard for the session was Gardner and Horn's introduction to The Good Works Project, a twelve-year research effort that according to Gardner "is interested in understanding people and institutions which strive to do good work and which hopefully achieve good work at least a lot of the time." The project has looked at a numerous professions including law, medicine, and journalism. (Good work being defined as work that is embodies expertise, meaning, and a sense of ethics). It doesn't sound like they would have included philanthropy in the professional mix if not for the important fact (wryly noted by Gardner) that they received a lot of funding to do so!
The panel discussion and audience questions touched on a number of themes that have come up in the ongoing "Funders Reflection" we host at TWI, including the sense of isolation that can come with working in a foundation, the power dynamics between grantors and grantees, lies and truthtelling, flattery and ego, assessing impact, funding a person not just a program, and whether philanthropy is really a "field."
Here's one passage from Howard Gardner that stuck with me:
We interviewed a lot of grantees, and boy, do they have a different picture than you get from the people who give away the money! It's filled with anger - and these are successful grantees. But I think a kind of question I would like to ask both of grantees and grantmakers is: Within your area or sector, could you rank-order the foundations you work with and give us the reasons why? Because it's important for me to know whether Julie (Rogers) is describing what is routine in regional community foundations, which have had a lot of stability and leadership, or is she an outlier that is just much, much better than the other ones. I know all of the big foundations very well. I have a very strong opinion about how to rank-order them (laughter). But I'd like to know whether those are idiosyncratic or whether people would generally agree about Ford, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Macarthur, Mellon, and so on. I think that would really shake people up. (Waldemar) Nielsen used to do that on his own, but that was one person. I'd love to know what fifty people, national NGO types, think about foundations and why.
To summarize, I think it would be very valuable to delineate subsectors and to see whether there is some consensus about ones that know what they're doing and ones that are careening or just looking in the mirror.
And that got me to thinking. You know those underground guides to colleges that supposedly give the real scoop on life at various campuses? What if someone put out an underground guide to foundations (at least the bigger ones) that talked about such things as how grantees are treated, the number of hoops you have to jump through to get funding, size of grant awarded versus amount of time invested in applying and reporting, etc. I realize such an undertaking would be fraught with bias of all kinds, not to mention other drawbacks but I do wonder what would happen if some sort of competitive ranking, as Gardner suggests, was introduced into the foundation world.
Conversely, there are things like the annual lists of the 10 best companies to work for. Could there be a list of the 10 best foundations in an area to collaborate with? And if so, what would the criteria be? And what changes in thinking and behavior might come from publicizing such a list?
The Center for Effective Philanthropy has begun exploring the territory of grantee assessments of foundations but assess individual foundations and don't get at the assessment across foundations that Gardner addresses.
Those speculations aside, the real question is how do foundations encourage and reward really authentic feedback from grantees both about their own work and the work of the foundations they collaborate with.
Clearly, it's a complicated question. But just as clearly it's a question that needs to be seriously addressed at all levels of the foundation world if people hope to do something about constructive about the grantee anger and grantor arrogance referred to in the Bradley Center discussion.