Talent often unwelcome at foundations

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

The Insider

Because their boards have little real decision making over which individual organizations receive grants, foundations should hire and promote the best talent available.

That sounds easy to accomplish.

The pay is good to excellent: The vast majority of CEO’s of foundations over $150 million take home over $200,000, and senior program and administrative staff are paid nearly $100,000 or more.

And working conditions are clean and bright, and there is lots of time for conferencing and socializing.

Why then, aren’t foundation professionals better at their jobs or, bluntly, more talented?

Many foundation boards want executives who reflect their personal comfort, not those who will drive the mission statements and help their communities.

And any search firms hired to help foundations find executives often simply bow to what the board tells them they want in a CEO.

And since boards often don’t know what an effective CEO looks like, the same old tired foundation bureaucrats and benign community leaders make the cut.

Because foundations’ expectations are so low, hiring ends up reverting to the least objectionable or the most digestible, and not the person who can really use foundation funds to make a better place to live for all. Talent scares people.

And ineffectual or ineffective CEOs tend to hire staff who reflect and perpetuate the mediocrity of their bosses.

I have been part of the hiring process for roughly 25 program or senior administrative staff, and the process has not been pretty.

We eliminated one incredibly qualified person, for example, because his name was connected to some African-American political activity 30 years ago.

We eliminated candidates because we didn’t think they would stay 10 or more years.

We eliminated candidates because we thought they were too smart and might make people within and outside the organization uncomfortable.

And after a year, because she asked too many questions and didn’t have a husband who was gainfully employed, we drove away a woman who is now a major figure in her field.

We also had untold conversations about weight, hairstyles and manner of dress of candidates.

The foundation field continues to get away with this behavior because it is easy to meet board and community expectations that are low.

Operating as an average foundation doesn’t take much talent, if any, while operating above average takes a tremendous amount of talent and determination.

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