Foundation officials live dual lives

[Editor’s note: The author of this column is a veteran foundation officer who wishes to remain anonymous.]

The Insider

I introduced this column last month by broaching just some of the unspoken truths of philanthropy:

* We demand that our grantees behave in ways that we don’t.

* Staff and board are often personally and professionally at odds with the missions of the very organizations that we represent.

* The words we publish can bear almost no relationship to how you might get a grant from our foundations, or if you will be given the time of day.

This has all gotten worse over my many years in the field.

Conference after conference has drilled into every senior manager and board member how their foundation should behave – with transparency, practicing equity, respecting diversity and engaging community.

And we mouth the right words and print up the pretty brochures that all say the same things so you can’t tell one place from another.

But the majority of us are not believers.

We, in fact, live a weird dual life. We are the kings and queens holding court as people come and plead their cases.

We probably even sit in the big chair or at the end of the table when the people come to see us.

In one of my previous positions, this was particularly loaded with meaning as many of the supplicants were people of color and the foundation professionals were all white.

For grantseekers who did not look and sound like us, we constantly talked in our internal meetings about how well-spoken or well-dressed they were or were not.

And if we detected an “attitude,” such as any hint of questioning that we understood their situation, it was an easy way to dismiss people for having passion about their community.

We were really, really scared of that.

At that same foundation, which wins national foundation awards every year, we had the same kinds of discussions about prospective board members who did not look or sound like us.

How did they dress? Were they articulate? Would they speak out about things they believed in?

We didn’t want anyone that couldn’t be easily controlled. We didn’t want anyone who was going to be difficult. But we advertised incessantly about how inclusive we were, how we were changing the culture of the community, the state and even the south.

The duality that people outside the field don’t understand is that we are all scared.

Everywhere that I have worked, there have been levels of personal and organizational terror that have caused us to behave differently than we say we do. Fear of:

* Making a grant that might not work out and being held accountable

* Of our board members:  “I don’t want to have Mr. X call me about that one; we’d better pass.”

* Of our elected officials:  “I don’t think that Senator Y likes them; we’d better pass.”

* Of what our friends might say: “That group had some trouble with my church some years back; we’d better pass.”

* Of sometimes just doing anything because just puttering along is a lot easier.

* And most of all fear that the tenets that we form our programs and practices around, often based upon the work of one person or one school of thought, are not the be all and end all in this world.

If you want money from a funder, do not ever try and challenge the thinking behind one of its initiatives or theories.

If you do, you have branded yourself as “big trouble” because it’s not about the thinking or the learning.

It’s about us constantly reaffirming for ourselves, our boards and our groups of friends that we are doers and leaders.

Don’t create any dissonance: Someone’s head might explode.

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