Should foundation officers stay or go?

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

The Insider

Just in the last couple months, a rash of friends have been privately looking to leave the foundation field.

Some are being forced out. Others are just tired of “it” – the mindless bureaucracy; the leaders without any sense of what the work is about; the inability to have meaningful conversations with grantseekers and grantmakers.

The word I hear most is “frustration.”

Mind you: Some want to stay, but I see some of the best and brightest faced with closed doors and glass ceilings.

If I were asked to give a visionary talk to young people in their first philanthropy job, I would tell them that, contrary to what they were being told as a shiny non-threatening presence, they would not be welcomed with open arms at their foundation or many others unless they garnered a reputation with their senior leadership and boards for being conservatively compliant.

That looks different at different places, but the foundation world is definitely not one for internal questioning.

However, I have bitten the forbidden fruit of genuine philanthropic success often enough that I can’t get off the gerbil wheel: I have been interviewing for foundation CEO jobs scattered across the country, including community foundations, family foundations, conversions, trusts, card-carrying religious brands.

I am well-known to the executive search world, as are many of my colleagues.

However, when we get to the foundation board search committee, we are much less sure that we want these jobs because the board doesn’t have any idea real idea of what they want the foundation to be.

Some want the caretaker. Some want the socialite. Many of them want to show off their own diversity credentials and their open-mindedness.

But do they want a sense of purpose?


Inevitably, we all know a lot more than they do about how one might do this work.

A friend of mine had finished runner-up in a CEO search for a large start-up foundation in the South, and the headhunter told himthe committee had concluded it was using training wheels and he was a competitive cyclist.

In the end, most of these committees are flying blind, with only the ability to brag on the great contributions their particular foundations have made.

At its core, when you push the idea of really driving the published strategies of the organization, you are implicitly challenging their roles and histories – both as board and community members.

And that might not get you an offer.

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