2009 Resolutions for Foundations

Here are the 5 things I would like to see foundations do in 2009:

Unrestrict grants that you have already given to nonprofits for project-specific activities so that they are able to make mission driven choices about their activities in 2009. Too many nonprofits can't make good decisions about what programs to keep, expand, or scale back during tough economic times because they have specific funding tied to those programs. Unrestrict those grants to make sure that organizations can focus on core programs.

Use 5% as a guideline, not a rule. When times are tough be there for the organizations that you financially support, even if it means that you are spending over 5%. Foundations do not exists to make sure that they continue to exists. Their donors got a tax break to have a positive impact on our communities.

Collaborate with other foundations to achieve impact. This is not a time for us to go at this alone. Turf battles are so 2008, so find some foundations with a common vision and figure out how you can coordinate your funding for maximum impact.

Think about your non-financial resources that would be useful to your nonprofit partners. Things like lobbyists, communications expertise, space, or information. Find new ways to get these resources to nonprofits.

Release your staff from the 9 to 5. I've never been a fan of arbitrary time schedules that don't match employee or community needs. Now is the time to figure out how to realign your foundation to measure results and not just hours clocked.

They say people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. As a new foundation head, I'm working on implementing all of these ideas in my foundation. It isn't easy, but it's necessary.

What other things would you like to see foundations implement in 2009?

Is trailblazing just common sense on steroids?

One of my friends on Linked In sent me a great article about the former President of the Peninsula Community Foundation, which is now the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and run by another trailblazer Emmett Carson. Bill Somerville now runs the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation and uses a process called "paperless giving" to make his grant decisions. Paperless giving involves him spending time in the community, listening to people impacted by community issues, and finding people with innovative solutions. He then gives money in 48 hours or less to support projects that look like they have potential. "I'm trying to push the envelope of philanthropy - most foundations are paralyzed in bureaucracies of their own making," he said recently, over a meal of meat loaf, curry pilaf and steamed vegetables at the St. Anthony of Padua soup kitchen in Menlo Park.

I loved the article and I think Somerville has a great approach but it made me wonder, since when does common sense giving get you a full spread in the San Francisco Chronicle? I am hoping for a day when good decision-making and less bureaucracy by foundations is a non-story but until then, check out the article here.

Knowledge Sharing in the Field

In my last post on advice to new foundation staff, I said that there isn’t a handbook that tells you how to be a good Program Officer, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of tools along the way that will make your job a lot clearer. One of this blog’s readers, Donald, suggested The Insider's Guide to GrantMaking by Joel Orosz as a good starting point for new grantmakers. I have found Grantcraft’s articles to be very useful as well.

There is a lot to be said for written resources but there are also the “unwritten” rules of grantmaking. These are the rules that exist in the heads of our boards and presidents. Rules in this category are things like “we don’t fund that type of organization”, or “we can only invest our endowment in traditional investments, not community development projects”. One of my purposes of creating this blog was to begin to bridge the generational gap that exists in the field of philanthropy. Part of that generational gap is the younger generation’s lack of experience doing the business of grantmaking. There is a lot that can be learned in this job by experiencing it firsthand. You make an unsuccessful grant, you learn from that experience and make a better grant next time. But another part of this gap is more experienced grantmakers not taking the time to share the lessons that they have learned. Until we learn as a field to share our lessons learned within our organizations, and more importantly throughout the field, we will never make true progress on the issues that are impacting our society.

Advice to Those New to the Foundation Field

I have just completed my first year as a program officer at a community foundation. Being a new Foundation staff member is really uncharted territory. There isn’t a handbook that tells you how to be an effective program officer and everyone seems to approach his or her position from a different perspective. I’ve made it my personal mission to try to demystify the foundation field for new foundation staff, prospective foundation staff, grant seekers, and most importantly for myself. In that vein, I have developed 6 pieces of advice for those new to the field that I hope makes your entrance into the foundation field a little less hazy.

  1. Don’t believe the hype- Positions at foundations are few and far between. There was probably a very talented applicant pool for your position and you must be very intelligent and knowledgeable about the nonprofit sector since you were chosen for your position. With that said I can pretty much guarantee that you are not as smart, funny, or as handsome (or pretty) as nonprofit and foundation staff alike may have you believe. Your program ideas are not suddenly brilliant, you are just sharing these ideas with a captive audience. False flattery is an unfortunate by-product of being in a position where you can make decisions about large amounts of money. You can handle this newfound access to wealth with grace and wisdom or you can act like a lottery winner. Please choose wisely.
  2. Treat grantees with the respect and reverence that they deserve- You get to spend your days with grantees and possible grantees that are the best and brightest of the nonprofit sector. They would make a lot more money if they used their immense talents working in the for profit sector but they are so passionate about the mission of their organizations that they choose to work for. Count yourself among the lucky few that get to spend most of your workday with passionate, idealistic people.
  3. Expand your professional network- The best ideas come from having a diverse professional network of people that have different opinions and experiences than you do. Join an affinity group of a different racial group, program area, or geographic interest to learn new approaches to issues that you face in your position.
  4. Get some support- This may be a circle of friends that you can bounce ideas off of, an affinity group like Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, which is designed to provide support and guidance to people new to the field of philanthropy, or a kickball team, where you can burn off some of the stress of your position. Figure out what kind of support would work the best for you and seek it out. If you can’t find that network of support, create your own.
  5. Never stop learning- The nonprofits that you interact with depend on your access to best practices in the field to improve their own work. Thoroughly read the reports from previous grantees. Are there lessons learned that might be applicable to other organizations that you are working with? Then share that information, within the limits of confidentiality. Scrupulously read about areas that your foundation makes grants in. Read about cities or states with similar demographics as your foundation’s geographic area. Are there any best practices from other locations that might be useful for the work that your foundation or grantees are doing?
  6. Extend your hand to those that are interested in the field- When you were thinking about entering the field of philanthropy you either had a wonderful mentor that guided you through the process or you wish that you had. Be that mentor to someone else. There are many students and professionals that just need a few minutes of your time to figure out if the foundation field is a good fit for them. Be open to informational interviews, speaking at sessions about the work of program officers, or being a mentor informally or through a program at your alma mater. You may have also noticed that since you have entered the field you now know about position opening that you never would have heard about when you weren’t in the field. Share those opportunities with your network of people that are interested in starting a career in philanthropy.

Now it’s your turn. What advice would you give to new foundation staff?