The following opinion article by Jim Canales, Irvine’s President and CEO, ran in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on April 23, 2009.
These are unprecedented times in philanthropy. The economic difficulties facing our country are beginning to overwhelm and strain nonprofit organizations in profound ways, at the very time when the endowments of foundations have eroded significantly.
This has, of course, stimulated important discussions about the share of assets foundations should give from their endowments each year, the importance of supporting advocacy, and many other ways that foundations can make a difference during this downturn.
These discussions are important, and each foundation, in the context of its values, legacy, and competencies, should certainly give thought to how it can best support nonprofit organizations in response to this crisis.
At the same time, as foundation officials, we would be well served to return to first principles and to remind ourselves that how we do our work can be just as important as what we choose to do.
Philanthropy is fundamentally a human enterprise, so as we make important strategic choices in response to the economic crisis, we should also embrace this as an opportunity to change behavior that undermines our effectiveness.
The power imbalance inherent in our work as well as the lack of any consistent feedback mechanism can permit the occupational hazards of insularity, complacency, and arrogance to thrive. Those unfortunate traits inhibit the ability of foundations to work as collaboratively with nonprofit groups as they should.
Insularity. Foundations are often accused of believing that the best ideas are those generated within their own walls. This view of foundations as distant ivory towers cannot be readily dismissed, and there are steps we should consider to demonstrate that we are guarding against the groupthink and narrow mind-set that insularity can produce.
The technological innovations that have swept society over the past decade might offer some solutions. The emergence of blogs as a means to engage in thoughtful and spirited public conversations about philanthropic strategies and choices has been a welcome shift.
Whether it's the Tactical Philanthropy blog, written by Sean Stannard-Stockton, or the frequent posts on The Huffington Post by Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, we have seen many examples that have enriched how foundations think and, more important, done so in a public and accessible way, inviting broader public comment. Similarly, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation's experiment in using a wiki to develop a possible grant-making strategy was commendable and offers yet another model for foundations to consider.
Each of us should give thought to how we might harness the power of technology, or other less sophisticated tools, to invite outside views into our decisions, to communicate openly about our work, to clarify what led to our conclusions, and to share what we have learned. In so doing, we will naturally find ways to engage other key players in the process. In the end, not only will we demonstrate our commitment to open and inclusive processes, but it is very likely that we will do a better job of achieving our social missions.
Complacency. In a field in which a measurable bottom line is elusive (other than the performance of our endowments) and there is no market force that suggests which foundations are succeeding and which are failing, it can be easy to fall into the trap of complacency. Moreover, as foundations are accountable to an amorphous general public, in view of their tax-exempt status, lines of accountability can be unclear.
And yet we are primarily accountable to our boards, and we have an obligation to ensure that we equip them to carry out their oversight and stewardship responsibilities thoughtfully.
A board's ability to exercise wise oversight often rests on the information we choose to give them, on the ways in which we organize our board meetings, and on members' exposure to and experience with the issues the foundation cares about.
As such, it is incumbent upon those of us in staff positions, especially leadership roles, to take all the steps we can to ensure that our boards are setting strategy and offering valuable insights based on their knowledge and expertise from the outside world. In doing so, they will raise important (and often difficult) questions and will help us to step up our efforts. The best foundation board meetings ought not to be those in which we all feel good (or even relieved) at the end; rather, they should be those in which our ways of thinking are challenged, our strategies questioned, and the resulting product improved. In building and fostering boards that engage constructively with staff members in these ways, we make an important statement about the pitfalls of complacency.
Arrogance. The power imbalance inherent to our work, combined with the lack of a formal and consistent feedback mechanism, makes it far too easy to start believing that those of us in foundations are the smartest people in the room.
It is unfortunate that honest criticism and direct pushback are rarities when nonprofit groups approach foundations. And that is not because grant seekers are timid; it is the result of behavior that we in philanthropy have unfortunately reinforced. Clearly, we have collectively sent the message that we'd prefer that our suggestions be adopted and that our view carry the day. So what can be done?
The best way to guard against this, of course, is to remain vigilant about how our behavior can be read and might even be misread. One cannot overstate the power of humility in this regard. Jim Collins, in Good to Great, writes of "Level Five" leadership, which represents the pinnacle of effective business leadership based on his rigorous research. Such leadership is characterized by a "paradoxical blend of personal humility and professional will." And when applied to philanthropy, humility is even more powerful, probably because we don't see enough of this powerful antidote to arrogance.
Philanthropy must seize this moment of crisis and convert it to a moment of opportunity for social missions that motivate us. We must indeed marshal our best thinking to capitalize on this unprecedented moment, but as we do so, let's also remember that we will be judged not only by what we do in response but also by how we do it. And indeed, if we can look back at this moment as the time when philanthropy collectively and aggressively turned away from the occupational hazards of insularity, complacency, and arrogance, that will be a lasting legacy.
James E. Canales is chief executive of the James Irvine Foundation, in San Francisco.
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