Foundations are less than we say or think

By The Insider

[Editor’s note: This is the inaugural column on grantmaking by a veteran foundation officer who, wanting to be as candid as possible about business practices in a business in which frankness can be a liability, wishes to remain anonymous.]

For the 10th, 20th or 100th time, I just got off a flight with someone who exclaimed that giving away money must be the best job in the world.

And depending on the situation, I may have responded with a polite. “Yes, it is very satisfying,” or a somewhat less direct, “Yes, its important work.

But tonight, after sitting through delay after delay, and being asked by someone who knew just enough to be dangerous, I told the truth, which is: “It should be more satisfying than it is, and we always end up being less than what we say or think we are.”

And that’s what this column is going to be about:

* How the world of philanthropy, seen from the inside, is filled with many small-thinking people just trying to keep their jobs – just like where you may work.

* That much of the work of philanthropy is about the promotion of doing good rather than the actual doing of good.

* And that our internal behavior doesn’t match very well with what we demand from our applicants and grantees.

And that’s just the start of it.

I have been doing this work for a long, long time now. I would like to think that I have done some things that have changed communities and peoples lives for the good.

But how much more could I have done — or could anyone in philanthropy truly do — if we could get past some of the barriers.

For example:

* Most foundation program and management staff get hired not because of their technical knowledge or their potential for being effective in carrying out the organization’s mission but, instead, for their “fit” with the culture of the organization.

Given how out of touch much of philanthropy is with the real world, this is a self-perpetuating recipe for ineffectiveness. We all dress nice, though.

The small world of minority persons who are deemed hirable is a related issue that is worth a column by itself.

* The distrust that funders have of each other.

How many times have I been asked about whether we are working actively with other funders to leverage our influence and dollars.

How many times have I embellished and said that we talk all the time and we are working together very closely on all sorts of projects.

* The fear we have of talking to people about their ideas.

I can’t count the number of unreturned phone calls and e-mails because we feared talking with people.

If you think a nonprofit might be intimidated to call us, we are even more fearful of having our peaceful and placid world challenged.

So, there you have a taste of what you’ll be hearing about from time to time.

This column will include some first-person stories, and some commentary on the field from someone in the trenches.

Mostly, I hope, I will offer eyes-and-ears reporting on those meetings you never get to attend.

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