Opinion
July 13, 2014

As the Role of Foundations Changes, We Need to Alter Our Default Attitudes

In philanthropy, we too often obsess about strategy without attending to one of the things that puts strategy most at risk: culture.

This is a time of enormous opportunity for organized philanthropy. The role and contributions of foundations are being reshaped by a combination of continuing growth of the philanthropic sector, of new and different strategies and platforms for social change, of emerging forms of collaboration and new vehicles that can lead to impact, and of a new set of attitudes and perspectives that a different generation brings to philanthropy.

These numerous forces and trends create a moment we will either seize, to propel forward, or squander, if we don’t consider our culture and reset philanthropy’s "default settings" (to borrow a phrase from the late author David Foster Wallace).

Here are a few such areas that need our attention to better meet the pressing challenges of our times:

Default setting: What’s new?

Reset to: What’s working?

Philanthropy should continue to embrace innovation and pursue new modes of working and doing; indeed, the rise of social entrepreneurship, impact investing, and pay for success spring from this very impulse. At the same time, foundations should not become so obsessed with identifying the next new solution for the intractable problems we face today that we neglect the tried and true.

Instead of focusing solely on "what’s new," we should also be investing in "what’s working." Searching for the elusive silver bullet rarely works, and there’s a healthy balance between providing risk capital for the new and investing precious capital in what we know works well.

Let’s nurture talented, visionary leaders and invest in building durable institutions. This is one of the most effective roles philanthropy can play to drive social change and is perhaps underused in our quest for the innovative approach or new solution.

Default setting: Models and metrics

Reset to: Adaptation and learning

The advent of "strategic philanthropy" during the past decade has certainly made important contributions to our field, encouraging foundations to clarify goals, to articulate how such goals will be achieved, and to become more rigorous about assessing progress.

At the same time, logic models and theories of change can sanitize our institutions to the point that we rely more on frameworks than we do our own judgment. It can also lead us to focus principally on areas in which measurement is more easily done and to diminish our capacity to rely in part on instinct to inform decisions that are often more art than science. Metrics and indicators are certainly important for accountability. Yet they cannot become the only way to measure our progress or ascertain our success.

Instead of a rigid focus on models and metrics, let’s embrace adaptation, learning, and refinement. Let’s be clear about our goals, while remaining open to unforeseen, emerging opportunities and to the feedback and intelligence that help us refine and improve our strategies. Recent writings by Bridge-​span on the idea of "adaptive philanthropy" offer useful ideas for building flexibility into our strategies and pivoting when unanticipated events occur.

Our world is not static, so why should a foundation’s strategies be?

Default setting: I’ve got this.

Reset to: We’ve got this.

Foundations are notoriously independent and not necessarily wired for partnership and collaboration. This may stem from the need to invent our own solutions or an inability to find common ground with other grant makers. As Larry Kramer, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, notes in a recent post for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, "None of us has the resources to make serious inroads on big problems ourselves."

In today’s complex environment, it will be our ability to collaborate—not just with other foundations but also with government, industry, and nonprofits—that will lead to greater effectiveness in philanthropy. It will require us to be good partners, which at times compels us to lead and at other times invites us to follow.

ArtPlace America is one example I have been engaged with personally while leading both the Irvine and the Barr foundations. A collaboration of 14 foundations, eight federal agencies, and six financial institutions, ArtPlace has invested $42-million in 80 cities and towns promoting the role of the arts in creating vibrant and economically robust communities.

We would do well to remember the wisdom in the African proverb: "If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together." One of philanthropy’s great assets is our ability to take a long-term view. We are one of the few sectors in society that can afford to take the long view and not be pressured into short-term decisions. Our ability to build authentic and trusting relationships with other actors will become paramount.

Default setting 4: How do I look?

Reset to: What do we see?

Foundations are public-benefit organizations, and those of us fortunate enough to work in philanthropy are stewards of these charitable assets. Having a foundation business card, however, does not bestow wisdom on us: What does do that is our ability to listen carefully to the communities we serve, to engage them authentically in crafting solutions to the challenges they face, and to invest a foundation’s resources in talented leaders and effective organizations.

Rather than an inward focus on ourselves, let’s be sure we orient our view outward.

Yes, we must also exercise leadership, use our voice, and avail ourselves of the platform that our foundation provides, but we must always do so with an unstinting dedication to be in service to others—not ourselves. And we must always remember to approach this privileged work with humility and grace. By doing so, we put those we serve front and center.

Foundation staff members are drawn to this work by one simple aspiration: to improve people’s lives. This is easier said than done, but the potent combination of careful reflection, thoughtful action, and humble leadership can go a long way.

That is a default setting worth getting right.

James E. Canales is president and trustee of the Barr Foundation in Boston.