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Harnessing Momentum for Change

Date: November 16, 2021

Ellie Buteau, PhD

Director of Research Projects and Special Advisor on Research Methodology and Analysis, CEP

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Newton’s first law of motion states that an object at rest, or moving at a constant speed in a straight line, will stay that way unless acted upon by a force. Staying at rest and moving at a constant speed in a straight line aren’t all that different in Newtonian mechanics — both describe a state of inertia.

Many foundations have existed in a comparable state of inertia for decades. Their leaders have known that they could be working differently — and in ways that they believed would lead to greater impact — for years. In 2016, CEP reported that few foundation CEOs believed the foundations they led were reaching their potential. Yet, they also believed that one of the main reasons their foundations weren’t achieving more was lack of internal clarity about their work and too many bureaucratic processes — issues that were under their control to change. Absent that change, many foundations have operated for decades with cumbersome application and reporting processes, stagnant — and low — levels of giving unrestricted support, and little progress addressing racial equity inside their own organizations or through their grantmaking.

But, as is true for many facets of life, that changed in the spring of 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic began in the United States. It seems that the pandemic was the force that finally broke many foundations out of their state of inertia.

While COVID-19 may have been the initial force, it was by no means the only one. Shortly after the pandemic began, national protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by police brought much-needed attention to racial injustice.

So, by the summer of 2020, when we initially collected data on what foundation leaders had been changing, we learned that they were simplifying processes, reducing burdens on grantees, giving more unrestricted support, and recognizing and starting to address the role and relevance of racism in so much of their work. Yet, as foundations had made changes — and made them quickly — there was some lack of clarity about the degree to which these changes would continue.

Since then, we have collected new data from both foundation and nonprofit leaders to examine whether these changes continued into 2021 and whether they will continue in the future. With optimism — and, admittedly, a bit of skepticism — I share our findings from Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?:

  1. Virtually all foundation leaders say their foundations are working differently now than in early 2020. They most frequently report streamlining processes to reduce the burden on grantees and providing more unrestricted support — changes they say they will sustain.
  2. Even as they acknowledge they have much yet to do, most foundation leaders say that racial equity is a more explicit consideration in how they conduct their work, and many are modifying their practices as a result. This includes changing how they identify applicants, providing more funding to organizations supporting Black and Latino communities, listening more intensively to grantees, funding systems change, and collaborating.
  3. Foundations that have boards with more racial diversity tended to adopt more practices to support grantees and the communities they serve. Yet, nearly half of leaders say that their boards are the biggest impediment to their foundation’s ability to advance racial equity.

The findings include many indications of change, as well as some challenges. Foundation leaders are the first to say they have a lot of work left to do, especially regarding racial equity.

But now that many foundations have harnessed the energy to chart a better path, will they stay on their current trajectory? Will they continue with the many changes they have made? Or will they stagnate or reverse course?

Newton’s third law of motion states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Foundations must guard against getting comfortable with the progress they have made and guard against reverting to old ways of operating. If foundation leaders don’t actively continue to push forward, there are plenty of forces waiting in the wings — from complacency to those arguing against the focus on racial equity, or those who suggest nonprofits are not worthy of trust — ready to knock them off their current course and back into a state of inertia.

Ellie Buteau is vice president, research, at CEP.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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