A Real Job: New Report on Being a Foundation CEO

Many years ago, a very accomplished friend who was much further along in his career was discussing with me his potential transition to a new role he was considering accepting. We were on a walk, and he said that he was leaning toward taking the new job.

“I think I need to do this. I have one more real job left in me,” he said, noting his age. “I am not ready to be a foundation president yet.”

I hadn’t given foundations a whole lot of thought at that point in my life, but what I took away was the perception of my friend that large private foundation CEO jobs were cushy resting spots for those who had essentially completed their careers. After all, there was no money to be raised, no products or services to be sold, no worries about unhappy constituents; just grateful grantees and aspiring grantees and the opportunity to feel good about supporting them.

Regardless of whether you think that was ever an accurate description or just an unfair stereotype, I think we can probably agree on this: that remark would not be as likely to be made today.

The foundation CEO job today is not just a hard one to get, it seems increasingly to be a hard one to keep – judging by the surprisingly short tenures of CEOs at some of this country’s larger foundations. Obviously, every situation is different – and people leave their jobs for all kinds of reasons. But it does seem that recent months and years have seen more departures of CEOs that do not appear to be entirely the incumbent’s decision, even when they occur after a year or two.

To cite one prominent example, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Board of Directors issued a statement earlier this year that its president would leave the foundation after five years in his role, saying “As the end of his term approaches, the board decided to look for a new kind of leadership to accelerate the pace of change in how MacArthur can use existing and new tools to tackle even bigger goals.”

Perhaps foundation CEO jobs are much harder than they look. Perhaps the lack of naturally occurring feedback loops is more of a curse than a blessing, leading to disconnects in perceptions about what is actually going on – disconnects of the type that my CEP colleagues document in this recent Foundation Review article. Then there is, of course, the fact that foundations often focus on the toughest challenges, the ones that have defied easy solutions.

For foundations, measures of effectiveness and impact are elusive. So when a board pushes to understand how it’s really going, it can be difficult for a CEO respond, and tougher still to argue that a given initiative represented the best allocation of funds relative to alternatives.

Yet resources or research to turn to for advice on the unique challenge of running a foundation are scarce.

“Precious little has been written…about what it takes to successfully lead a philanthropic organization,” writes Fay Twersky, in the introduction to her report, Foundation CEOs as Artful Jugglers. Twersky, director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation (a CEP funder and client), member of the CEP Board of Directors, and co-founder with CEP of our YouthTruth initiative, presented findings from her research at CEP’s conference in Detroit last year.

I am pleased that we have published, today, her full report. We are doing so in response to many requests from conference attendees who wanted to know more – and because we feel it’s important that her work gets the attention of foundation leaders and board members. (Stanford Social Innovation Review also published an excerpt earlier this year.)

Twersky’s is the first in what I expect will be an occasional series of papers authored by those outside CEP that we will publish because of their salience to our audience.

While Twersky’s piece has a hopeful title, the interviews she conducted with foundation CEOs showed that their leadership is often much less than artful as they struggle with three central challenges: to engage their boards, to cultivate a healthy organization, and to achieve impact.

She describes CEOs who, by their own admission, paid insufficient attention to understanding the views of their boards, neglected internal staff culture, or did not show the patience needed to maximize impact. She also discusses those who got these elements right, though she notes that, “by their own reckoning, few CEOs are equally successful in all three domains.” Hopefully, her piece can be a resource to CEOs that helps to change that.

Running a foundation today is indeed a real job – at least if you’re going to do it well.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP and a regular columnist in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @PhilCEP.

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