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Funders encouraged to boost ‘common good’

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Foundations can better advance their missions and be more appreciated as institutions if they work to advance the “common good” and give greater attention in their grantmaking to diversity, equal opportunity and “the artificial barriers that often stop us from making fully valuable connections,” a new report says.

Foundations will be more effective when they “explicitly ground their grantmaking in fundamental values, and when they have a clear idea of the roles they could – and do – play in the wider society over the long term,” says the report, Foundations for the Common Good, written by Mark Rosenman, director of Caring to Change.

The common good “reflects both the morality and the enlightened self-interest that allows institutions across society to operate so that all might enjoy a life of justly and humanely distributed resources, rewards, responsibilities and obligations,” the report says.

The common good, it says, is advanced “when society’s institutions, including foundations, operate in the interests of the broadest possible swath of people.”

Based on over 100 formal interviews and conversations with over 50 individuals who work either for foundations or for groups seeking their support, the report looks at three broad strategies to promote the common good, and makes suggestions for pursuing each strategy.

First, it looks at philanthropy’s role in advancing the common good.

“Foundation leaders can improve their work by explicitly rooting it in basic values that are widely shared in our society, by understanding how their specific missions relate to the broader common good, by working explicitly to serve such broader purposes, and by making use of a wide variety of strategies,” the report says.

“Foundations should draw their authority and informing guidance from basic American values in serving the broader common good no matter what their specific mission,” it says. “The common good is best served by grantmaking to advance change as well as to provide charity and support institutions.”

Foundations, for example, should define the core values that motivate their work; frame their mission in the context of philanthropy’s broad role; look at their overall grantmaking strategies in the context of a larger definition of their role; consider grantmaking to explicitly support values involving the common good; and support effort to “bring grantees’ values to the fore.”

Second, the report looks at promoting diversity and “vigorous equal opportunity/outcomes.”

To be fully effective “in serving its special mission and creating a better world,” it says, each foundation “should direct attention to diversity and equal opportunity, as well as the tendency for some groups to be excluded from the mainstream of society.”

Foundations “should be clear that working to fully define and serve the common good and the effective pursuit of missions require, as both a necessary means and a laudable end, the equitable participation of all diverse sectors of society.”

Foundations, for example, should create “supportive” environments and provide resources for foundation and nonprofit leaders to address diversity; affirm that diversity is a “central concern” in all program areas and for general support grants; support nonprofit organizational-development initiatives that address concerns of diversity and that “vigorously pursue” equality of opportunities and outcomes; and make seed grants to nonprofits that want to set up “diversity steering panels.”

Finally, the report looks at “connecting” analyses, programs, organizations and people.

“To reach their full potential,” it says, “foundations should employ broad analyses of the context in which they operate and the problems they address, bring people and organizations together in service to the common good, and look for synergies between and among program and issue areas.”

While problems are related, “too often grantmaking is not,” the report says. Foundations need to work for more coherence in their efforts by locating their missions in the context of the common good and by exploring and addressing the relationships between and among various issues and problems.”

So foundations should “promote learning, collaboration and synthesis across fields, divisions, and organizations to yield benefits for their specific missions and to advance the common good.”

Development of the report was supported by the Ford Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, The California Endowment, William C. Graustein, New World Foundation, Pettus-Crowe Foundation and Morino Institute.

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