July 30, 2007

The Lonely Profession?

philanthropy.jpgFor an engaging exploration of what constitutes good work in philanthropy -- and the challenges involved in doing it -- check out the transcript of Grantmaking: The Lonely Profession, a panel discussion convened on July 19 by The Hudson Institute's Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Moderated by William Schambra, the panel members were:

Howard Gardner, Harvard University
Laura Horn, Harvard Division of Medical Ethics
Julie Rogers, Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation
Mindy Hernandez, Aspen Institute

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."

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July 27, 2007

The Challenges of Storytelling

TWImasthead_01_01.gifIt's July 27 and I'm thinking about the fact that it was three years ago today that TWI's founder Fred Whitman died. A lot has happened since then. We've gone from a small operating foundation that flew under the radar for many years to a grantmaking foundation that is funding important work, building strong relationships, and achieving higher visibility for our mission.

In terms of our mission, I am convinced more than ever of the value of our explicit focus on the processes of thinking, communication, and decision-making. And I'm also aware of the continuing challenge of articulating this work in ways that are concrete and compelling. The gap between reading or hearing about things such as dialogue or group reflection and participating in them is wide indeed. And this challenge especially hits home for process proponents trying to capture the attention of prospective funders. Process-oriented work can come off sounding too touchy-feely, too abstract, too general, too something - not to mention the problem of measuring "impact."

Anyway, I've been thinking about the challenge of communication not only because Fred's been on my mind (he was never satisfied with how the Institute was described) but because I've been reading Chip and Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. The title says it all in terms of what they explore in the book and I'm finding much of it useful and thought-provoking. It's not all new of course, but they do present their material in a sticky fashion!

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April 18, 2007

Is the New Philanthropy Wise?

Thumbnail image for philanthropy.jpgFor a thoughtful look at what may lie ahead for philanthropy, particularly venture philanthropy models, check out this keynote speech recently delivered by Katherine Fulton, President of the Monitor Institute for a Stanford Social Innovation Review audience.

She says these are times where "our perceptions lag our reality" -- a "mixing up moment" full of rapid change, ambiguity, and new convergences. What's needed, she says, are entrepreneurial, cross-sector approaches to solving problems. One line in particular I liked is that "We are not just thinking our way into a new way of acting, we are acting our way into a new way of thinking."

At the end of her talk she says the question that has been bothering her for a while is "Will the new (venture) philanthropy be wise?" She thinks wisdom is scarce right now and wonders whether new philanthropy with its emphasis on business plans, benchmarks, evaluation models, etc. would fund something like the Civil Rights Movement today. It's a good question.

She cites those who did fund Civil Right initiatives back then as being funders who evidenced the qualities she associates with great philanthropy: risk-taking, empathy, stamina, and humility. Not a bad list. And a good signpost for philanthropy as it moves in new directions.

April 11, 2007


The Blue Green Alliance is a new strategic partnership between The United Steelworkers and the Sierra Club that aims to “lead a national effort to fight for Good Jobs, A Clean Environment, and a Safer World.” Recently, I heard Carl Pope, Executive Director of the Sierra Club and David Foster, Executive Director of BGA (formerly with United Steelworkers) talk about this promising new effort.

Pope opened by saying he feels like he is “skiing an avalanche” these days because events in the world are moving so fast in regards to global warming. Both he and David Foster spoke of the need, and the challenge, of being pro-active, rather than reactive, in such an environment. They then linked being pro-active with being collaborative, with building strategic alliances that can lead to new conversations, new thinking, and new action. They ended by talking about how trusting relationships built over time--such as between The Sierra Club and The United Steelworkers--are key to being able to do “heavy lifting.”

These comments linking social change to being proactive, to fostering collaborative dialogue and action, to building trusting relationships, have stuck with me. Certainly, they resonate with a lot of the work TWI’s grantees are doing and what I’d like to think is the approach TWI brings to its support of them. And that got me to thinking: maybe we should drop the language of grantmaker/grantee and start talking about each other as allies instead.

January 25, 2007

Momentum Around Operating Support?

Two new and instructive research reports introduce new data into the ongoing debate over unrestricted-operating versus project-based funding. While the findings may seem self-evident to some, these reports provide many intriguing nuggets and will hopefully serve to generate deeper discussions within the field, especially at the board level.

General Operating Support: Research on Grantmaker Policies and Practices, by The University of San Francisco’s Institute for Nonprofit Management, incorporates findings from a survey of California foundations, as well as focus groups and interviews with foundation staff and trustees. I’m particularly encouraged by this observation:

There was stated feeling that general operating grants made the relationship between the foundation and nonprofit more “honest”, and created dialogue between foundation staff and trustees about the long term strategic focus of the foundation.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s In Search of Impact: Practices and Perceptions in Foundations’ Provision of Program and Operating Grants to Nonprofits,
finds less backing for operating support than the USF study, which might reflect the national scope of CEP's study. Not so encouraging signs from this report:

Most of the grants made by even the large foundation whose grantmaking is analyzed in our study are program restricted, small, and short-term.

CEOs see operating support as more likely to make a positive impact on grantee organizations, but most place other priorities higher in their decision-making. Just 16 percent of CEOs we surveyed indicate that they favor providing operating support, and a third have no preference. Nearly half prefer to provide program support to grantees – often because they feel it is easier to connect their grants to specific outcomes.

I wonder though how much of that concern with specific outcomes has more to do with ego than impact. There’s also the issue of whether what is measured is what is actually meaningful.

Speaking of impact, the report recommends that:

Those foundations seeking to maximize their impact on grantee organizations should make larger, longer term operating grants – and do so while exemplifying three additional characteristics that grantees most value in their foundation funders.” (quality relationships, clear communication, and an understanding of the field combined with the ability to advance knowledge and affect public policy).

Again, such a recommendation may seem self-evident to some, but clearly not to all, not by a long-shot.

January 20, 2007

What Are We Talking About?

Van Jones, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, makes some pointed comments about the need to change the present model of philanthropy, particularly the need to for funders and grantees to “stop lying to each other.” He bemoans the parent-teenager dynamics that underlie the field, challenges the widespread fear of admitting “we don’t know”, and calls for a framework that funds “integrity, experimentation, and honest reporting.” He also has thoughtful things to say about the need to create new narratives about social change and the importance of combining inner and outer work.

You can listen to the podcast here.

December 15, 2006

Learning From Conservatives

A few weeks I attended the Philanthropy Roundtable’s annual conference It was my first time going to a gathering such as this, and though I’ve talked about my experience a lot, I’ve been hesitant to follow through on my original intention to write something about it. I guess I’ve been reluctant, and still am, to generalize (at least publicly!) based on my first, limited foray into such identifiably conservative territory.

That said I’m glad I went and I intend to go again. And I was reminded in an experiential, rather than an abstract, way of how our different lenses on the world affect what gets talked about, how issues get framed, and how we feel about it all. Personally, it confirmed for me the importance of walking TWI’s talk in terms of engaging in cross-perspective dialogue.

One thing that has stayed with me was how comfortable speakers at some of the sessions were talking about the importance of funding talented individuals and of funding ideas. This brought home to me again the whole “people vs. programs” funding issue that is so common in philanthropic conversations.

Often, a foundation’s story revolves around supporting programs, when the implicit conversation or understanding is that foundations are actually funding individuals, funding vision and leadership.

Obviously programs are important, but I think the field would benefit more from making that implicit conversation about supporting people, explicit. Certainly, that’s the case in the business world. Leaders in business seem very comfortable talking about the individual “human assets” in their organizations, and how important it is to invest in them over time. For all the talk about nonprofits learning from business, why is that one lesson many foundations seem reluctant to embrace?

October 28, 2006

Musings from John #2...

Every week or so John Esterle, TWI’s director, shares his thoughts, insights, fears, hopes and wishes about the current state of philanthropy, as well as acknowledgments for great work he encounters along the way. Here is the latest:

This past week I attended the Northern California Grantmakers presentation on “Defining Risks in Grantmaking” led by Susan Clark of Columbia Foundation and Ellen Friedman of Tides Foundation and moderated by Hugh Burroughs (bio here). The presentation was excellent. Their thoughtful comments provided the foundation for a rich discussion that explored risk from a variety of angles.

Two ideas especially stuck with me. Susan talked about the importance of stepping up to problems we don’t know the solutions to, and of funding programs that explore unknown or uncertain territory. Then Ellen linked risk-taking to the importance of developing authentic relationships between funders and grantees.

To me those two ideas are linked.

We are much more likely to be willing to step into the unknown, to embrace uncertainty and risk, with people we have real relationships with. What do I mean by real? To begin it means being able to give each other honest and direct feedback about the work – and that doesn’t happen without trust. Trust, then, is a huge issue for funders and grantees if risk-taking is to be attempted and supported.

And that got me thinking about the importance of funders providing operating support, or unrestricted funding. Such funding is implicitly rooted in trust. It also allows grantees the freedom to take risks themselves. When we talk about risk-taking in philanthropy, about innovation, what we’re really talking about it is supporting that at the program level.

It’s promising to see all the conversations bubbling up in the world of philanthropy about doing things differently, about taking risks, about funding learning and innovation, about supporting leadership development, above all about the importance of authentic relationships. From my perspective, giving operating support provides the platform for all of those things to happen.

Thinking about risk and uncertainty also got me thinking about the interview I did with Eamonn Kelly and his wise words on the subject.

The Kelly interview is here.

October 19, 2006

First Posting from John

While the need to better evaluate programs has been trumpeted loudly for some time now, increasingly there appears to be some push back on the drive (stampede?) to measure results. One promising indicator is Drowning in Data, by Alana Snibbe, in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review. Snibbe provides a useful overview of a complex issue and offers good insights into what funders and grantees should really be paying attention to in terms of assessing what they’re doing.

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