Talent in philanthropy: Generalist or specialist?

[Editor’s note: This is the first of two excerpts from a talk given at the Foundation Impact Research Group at Duke University’s Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy on April 16, 2008.]

Gara LaMarche
Gara LaMarche

Gara LaMarche

The first question about talent in philanthropy is: What kind of skill set are you looking for?

My main focus today is what I consider to be the key frontline position, the core of business. At Atlantic Philanthropies, it would be a program executive, but the more generic title, and what most foundations use, is program officer.

Who makes the best program officer? Is it someone with deep content knowledge in a particular field, or someone versatile enough to handle a number of issues, move over time from one field to another?

Size matters

A very small foundation – and most of the foundations in the United States are quite small, many not even staffed – doesn’t have the luxury of being able to opt for narrow expertise. It needs a utility infielder.

A larger foundation of the kind I am most experienced in, generally deals with at least several issues and will have multiple program officers.

In those foundations, which do most of the funding aimed at social policy in the United States and around the world, there is a choice: generalist or specialist?

Putting experts in the field

What are the benefits of hiring a specialist?

Well, many of the fields we deal in are highly developed and often complex, and it may not be very respectful of the organizations and institutions we support to make their critical link to funding someone who has to learn on the job – who may take years to get up to speed on, say, the saga of failed immigration reform, the web of relationships and rivalries among human rights or environmental groups, the landscape of school reform.

What are the hazards of hiring primarily on the basis of specialty?

For one thing, the expert program officer may not have a broad view, a larger context about public policy or social change that is an essential element of understanding how to make an impact. They may not know how to manage people or translate their theories into programs that can make a difference in the real world.

Moreover, they can be too close to the field to have an independent perspective.

There is often a strong temptation not simply to identify strong organizations and individuals whose work advances your change strategies and give them funds, technical support and running room to excel, but to run the field from the chair of the foundation officer.

The staff member who succumbs to it disserves the field, because foundations by their particular power can greatly distort the marketplace and other actors in it have little choice but to get in line.

Cultivating broad visionaries

Generalists have strengths and weaknesses that are to some extent the mirror image of those of specialists.

They can approach a new issue or initiative with a perspective that is often fresh, not overly influenced by a particular faction, and informed by wide knowledge and experience.

A program officer who has years of experience in, say, the gay-rights or labor movements may be a better criminal-justice funder because she can adapt those lessons to other change arenas.

They are more likely to have a broader politics – not in the sense of partisanship, but the important sense of having a framework for understanding how the world works, what are the interdependent elements of the ecosystems of change, how to locate an issue or a field in that broader landscape and make the necessary connections.

Well-entrenched, but not the only way

In the end, I think the trend of hiring specialists in multiple-issue, professionally-staffed foundations is well-entrenched, and the fact that I have done nothing to change it despite my concerns and despite having responsibility for hiring dozens, if not hundreds of program staff, suggests just how entrenched it is.

I would note for the record, though, that several other disciplines that have some kinship to philanthropy, in that they must winnow broad quantities of information and data and make judgments that have consequences for those included or left out, while having an impact on public debate and policy, traditionally take a different approach.

One is journalism. A major newspaper hires reporters for the most part at an entry level. A young reporter might start out on the police beat, then go to the state capitol, then D.C. or a foreign bureau before returning to take up an editorial post.

It’s expected that a good journalist can come up to speed in a new area, and learn the key players, language and issues, in a matter of months.

Yes, the issues foundations deal with can be complex, but not more so than the Mideast peace process or the machinations of Albany or Sacramento.

Another field in which versatility is the norm is book publishing.

My friend Will Schwalbe, who led Hyperion Press until recently, edited Nigella Lawson and David Halberstam; Lisa Drew of Simon and Schuster helped both Barbara Bush and Anne Heche bring out what they had to say.

Anyone with that kind of range would be valuable in philanthropy.

But making a profound change in the way philanthropy looks for talent and organizes it is very hard to do without wiping the slate clean and starting over, which is why people like me haven’t done it.

To see the full text of the talk, visit Atlantic Philanthropies’ website.

Gara LaMarche is president and CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies. He previously served as vice president and director of U.S. programs for the Open Society Institute and has served in a variety of positions with the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch and PEN American Center.

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