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Talent in philanthropy: Hiring good talent scouts

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[Editor’s note: This is the second 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

There is often a predictability about the grantmaking of many foundations, a cast of characters composed of the usual suspects, a heavy concentration of awards to Eastern Seaboard institutions, and, all too often, a lack of racial, gender and class diversity that suggests that most grants go to those most experienced in the ways of getting grants.

Suppose for a moment you started from scratch and set your task as one of finding the best, the most effective, the most innovative of the emerging leaders and organizations in your field of interest.

Simply put, suppose you thought of yourself as a talent scout. How might you go about it?

You might start by looking at other fields that place paramount importance on finding creative and impressive people. What does a good editor, baseball pitching scout, art dealer or movie studio casting agent do?

They keep a very open mind.

Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary children’s book editor at Harper and Row, made a practice of seeing any writer or illustrator who showed up at her office with a manuscript or portfolio.

If she’d been less accessible, the world might have been deprived of Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon or Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

They move around a lot.

Michael Lewis, describing the way traditional baseball scouts work in his 2003 Moneyball, writes: “in the scouts’ view, you found a big-league ballplayer by driving sixty thousand miles, staying in a hundred crappy motels, and eating god knows how many meals at Denny’s all so you could watch 200 high school and college baseball games inside of four months, 199 of which were completely meaningless to you.”

They constantly read, watch, attend
events, and talk with a wide range of others with good eyes and ears.

When the urban analyst Jane Jacobs died recently, I was struck by a fact about how she came to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was cited in her obituary by The New York Times.

Ms. Jacobs’ 1958 Fortune article on urban downtowns, the article said, “caught the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, which offered [her] a grant to write about cities. Two grants and three years later, she produced her manuscript on the Remington typewriter that she used until her death.”

They keep a close eye on young people.

Last year a New York Times article examined the New York art dealer Jack Tilton and his travels to Columbia and Yale Universities to look at the work of promising art students.

So program officers should be more like talent scouts, more like the great earlier ones – the Frederick Gateses, Paul Ylvisakers, Margaret Mahoneys, dare I say Joel Fleishman.

Each of these grantmakers had tremendous eyes and instincts, qualities too often bred out through the relentless professionalizing of our…profession.

My dozen years of experience in hiring at foundations has taught me that the ideal program officer is a mix of enthusiast and critic. Too much in one direction or the other, and you get distortion that does not lead to good grantmaking.

You want someone who believes in something – a cause, an organization, a leader – enough to be a strong and effective advocate. But you also need a strong critical faculty – the ability to raise the right questions and see through the hype.

A vision thing

But there is more. In the program officer or higher leadership level – the director of a division or program, for example – you want a thought leader.

You want someone who gets up in the morning and thinks about how to advance the field for which they are responsible at the foundation.

Someone who is constantly learning and sharing that knowledge. Someone who has a point of view to advance without being doctrinaire or sectarian. Someone who has a strong sense of political and social context, not a tunnel view about their particular issue or field.

You might call it a vision thing.

Over the years I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that if this quality is missing in a key program person, you cannot put it there.

It is at times the case that a thought leader has weaker management skills or is hard to manage themselves, or has difficulty translating ideas into strategies. You can compensate for that most of the time from below or from the side, or you can rein them in from above when necessary. But it is usually not possible to make up for a deficit in the other direction.

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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