Foundation strategies are wholly arbitrary

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

The Insider

The part of foundation work that involves the receipt of proposals, the judging of worthiness and the basic premise of following up with a decline or award is pretty easy to understand.

This is the retail side of philanthropy and, with variations due to size, skill and governance structure, has common elements across all foundations.

Less understood is the product development side of philanthropy: How do we come up with these ideas about the various foundation funding priorities and the resultant programs and strategies?

Where do we get our information, and how do we choose among the hundreds of choices?

And, importantly, why do we often land on programs and strategies that don’t resonate with anyone but fellow philanthropists?

Having spent over 20 years doing this work, I can tell you that the process, although cloaked in information-gathering and community input, is wholly arbitrary.

For example:

* Entire funding initiatives worth millions of dollars can be based on a board member having attended a 45-minute presentation at a foundation conference.

* Initiatives often result from the successful sales pitches by little-known consultants that effectively commandeer entire divisions of foundations to help line the consultants’ check books and promote their business models.

* The need to churn out large numbers of superficial programs at some foundations is the measure of success for the CEO and staff.

About 10 or 15 years ago, when even tiny local foundations started feeling put upon to endeavor to change the world, the environment changed.

No longer was it enough to be supporting and stimulating the efforts of others.

That’s not to say the best use of foundation dollars was, or is, to mindlessly write checks to various worthy causes.

Foundations clearly have a more important role of being an arbiter and leader on the most important issues of the day.

But somewhere along the way, foundations got sold on the idea that they are the primary thought leaders and problem-solvers around — and that others should acknowledge that.

Now, instead of being a partner with some dollars to bring to the table, we must portray ourselves as the solution to 100-year-old systemic issues.

No one outside our doors believes it, but that’s what our boards and CEOs say we are.

How many times can people outside of philanthropy hear the terms “data-driven,” “best practices,” “science-based” or “funding only impact” and not tune us out entirely?

And “science” often consists of a lone consultant telling us that’s how we need to do it, or the “data” consists of a half-dozen hurriedly-prepared paragraphs meant to appease management’s lust to show off to a board how hard we are working.

When can we grow up and just be what the outside world wants us to be — a dedicated group of people with some dollars behind us that can help move change on the endemic and emerging issues of the day, rather than our frequent self-portrayal as the smartest and most important people around?

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