Changing Philanthropy in Changing Times

Nicky Goren

This post from Nicky Goren, president and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, is the seventh in a series of eight essays from foundation CEOs reflecting on findings from the CEP research report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in conjunction with its 50th anniversary.

The Future of Foundation Philanthropy is both thought-provoking and a clarion call for the sector. While the report gives me hope that I, along with my fellow foundation CEOs, will rise to the challenges evident in many of the responses to the survey, it also provides a clear signal that, if philanthropy hopes to have an impact, we may have to rethink the very nature and practice of philanthropy.

According to the report, only 13 percent of foundation leaders believe that we’re making a significant difference right now. Perhaps more troubling, one-third of us don’t believe that foundations even have the ability to make a significant difference on important issues in society.

These are sobering numbers on the surface, especially coming from people whose careers are founded on making a difference.

But the obstacles and challenges identified by CEOs — the things they believe are blunting our impact — are, I believe, largely within our control.

We can change our institutional cultures and work harder to find and cultivate the board and staff leadership we need.

We can think more boldly, take more risks, and engage with new and different partners within philanthropy and beyond.

In fact, the one challenge identified by foundation leaders that’s beyond our control — the magnitude of society’s challenges in contrast with the size of our financial assets — requires us to break out of traditional models of philanthropy and make those changes.

And that means thinking differently about the assets we have at our disposal, as well as how we work in partnership with others.

Jim Joseph, the former president of the Council on Foundations, often spoke about how foundations can use several forms of capital to achieve good, including their networks of influence, their knowledge, and their reputations. Foundations are in a unique position. Because of our role and our vantage point, we can bring people together in ways that other institutions cannot. twitter-web

When we leverage all of these resources, we have the power to unite people and lead important discussions that — along with our financial capital — can produce change.

If not us, who?

Government can be a powerful ally in our work, but as the recent election and years of partisan gridlock have demonstrated, we cannot rely on government alone to solve our nation’s problems.

Businesses can be influential engines for change, but their primary role is not social change.

Philanthropy cannot be a substitute for a functional government or public policies, and our main drivers differ in many ways from that of business.

Nevertheless, philanthropy, government, and business need each other. And I wholeheartedly believe it is possible for foundations to bring these disparate groups together to make a significant difference in society.

Not only should foundations be making an effort to align our goals with other sectors, we must work harder to collaborate with each other, as the report indicates. Foundations are often quick to preach about the importance of grantees working together and aligning efforts, but are slow to put this into practice for themselves.

Recently, the Meyer Foundation outlined a new strategic plan that puts our mission of building an equitable Greater Washington D.C. region front and center. As we went through the planning process, we realized that we needed to become a much more collaborative and open organization. We recognized that we would need to become more active conveners and build stronger relationships — with other foundations, businesses, government, nonprofits, and the people we ultimately seek to support.

Our strategy is grounded in the idea of collective action — that we are stronger and will have more impact together than apart. We are working to support and participate in efforts to align organizations, businesses, and government agencies that are working toward shared goals. We are also actively promoting collaborative approaches and initiatives to attract additional capital to those efforts. These relationships cannot be transactional. We are all living and working together, and we all have a stake in creating better outcomes for everyone.

A number of CEOs in the report are not “very hopeful” that philanthropy can make a dent. And at the same time, forty percent also said that they would keep the same or similar focus to their foundation’s current work, even if they had no constraints on how to use their foundation’s resources.

But that’s exactly what we need to do.

As one member of our board put it, we need to stop thinking about our work in terms of how much money we have as an institution and what we can accomplish with that money, but rather ask our communities and ourselves: what is the change we collectively want to see? What resources can our organization bring to bear? Who else needs to be at the table?

Our vast resources can make a difference.

As foundation leaders, we are working to address problems that often seem impossible to solve. But we have the resources — and I use that term broadly — to make the impossible possible if we are willing to break out of our traditional molds.

This blog post is one of eight reflections from foundation CEOs to the CEP research report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective. Download the entire collection of CEO reflections here.

Nicky Goren is president and CEO of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation. Follow her on Twitter at @NickyGoren.

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