Critiques of Foundations, Learning from Success, and #GivingTuesday

Critiques of philanthropists and foundations seem to be on the upswing. A few weeks ago, I wrote about this trend and quoted a thoughtful Atlantic piece by Benjamin Soskis that argued that such critique is both healthy and in keeping with a long history of public debate about the role of philanthropy.

“In the midst of this latest Gilded Age, as the prerogatives of concentrated wealth march onwards with little resistance, an aggressive – even at times antagonistic – engagement between the public and their benefactors shouldn’t be considered a mark of incivility,” Soskis argues. “It should be considered a democratic imperative.” As I said in my earlier post, I think that’s mostly right.

But I hope that, along with the critique, there is increased attention paid to what is good in the work of foundations and those they fund and to the unique and important role foundations can play. I hope the increasing public critique of philanthropy is accompanied by a discussion of its historical, present, and potential future importance, and of the successes and contributions of foundations and also the broader nonprofit sector.

In my work at CEP over the past nearly 13 years, I have had the privilege of seeing some amazing work being done by foundations and the nonprofit organizations they support. I have been impressed and inspired by the work of well-run foundations focusing on issues such as health, gay rights, the environment, criminal justice reform, and the list goes on.

Yes, I have also seen ineffective foundations – too many and too often. Both things are simultaneously true. So, yes, critique of foundations is healthy. But so is a discussion of what is working well, of what we can learn from successes.

The question is how to do this when it is often the case that most effective foundations are the very ones that are least likely to tout themselves? As I noted in my Chronicle of Philanthropy column earlier this year, the leaders of these foundations are hesitant to hog the spotlight because they know that shared goals are more likely to be achieved if that spotlight is shared, or sometimes cast on others altogether.

How, then, can foundations bring attention to their efforts, and to the work of their grantees, in a way that heightens the public’s understanding and appreciation for what they do without making it all about them? I don’t have the answer – but I would like to resuscitate one simple idea I floated last year: foundations should get involved with #GivingTuesday. Here’s what I suggested:

#GivingTuesday is intended to create “a national day of giving to kick off the giving season … on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday.” Maybe you don’t think it has much relevance for foundations, but I’d like to suggest that it could—and that it should.

I‘ve been impressed … by the way #GivingTuesday has become something communities and groups take and make their own. That’s a credit to the 92nd Street Y, which has been the incubator for this idea, and to its … executive director, Henry Timms.

I had the good fortune of having breakfast with Timms last month, and he told me that one group that he and his colleagues have struggled to engage in #GivingTuesday is foundations. On the one hand, that makes sense, since #GivingTuesday has really been focused on generating giving among individuals. Foundations, of course, make grants all the time—that’s a big part of what they do.

But I think that, in fact, foundations could play a vital role in #GivingTuesday. Perhaps presumptuously, I would like to offer an idea for how. I suggest that foundations name, on #GivingTuesday, one or perhaps several recipients of special #GivingTuesday Impact Grants. (GIGs, if we must use an acronym.)

The criteria would be simple: Foundations would choose the organization or organizations among their current grantees that had the strongest demonstrated record(s) of effectiveness in pursuit of their goals. Then, they’d provide to the winning organizations the type of grants that we have seen in our research are most helpful in terms of impact on organizations: six figures, multi-year, and unrestricted. Perhaps at least two years and $200,000 (ideally more)—accompanying the grant with a significant public announcement.

Importantly, these grants would come on top of whatever the organization was already getting.

What would this accomplish?

First, it would reward effective organizations with the kind of flexible funding that can be hard to obtain—allowing them to strengthen their infrastructure. Too often, effective organizations struggle to get the resources they need to invest in their growth and development, as we pointed out in this recent report.

Second, if accompanied by smart marketing and publicity, it would send a powerful signal to individual donors—and other funders—about organizations that are making a difference, potentially catalyzing more support. It would also reinforce the importance of choosing organizations based on their effectiveness in pursuing their goals: foundations, after all, have staff whose job it is to do just that. Why not allow other donors to reap benefits of their work and expertise?

Third, the publicity associated with foundations’ participation in this effort would help educate the public about the role foundations play. In addition to individual announcements tailored to fields or communities in which participating foundations are working, some organization or organizations—like CEP, GEO , Foundation Center, or COF (or perhaps all of us together) —could track all the GIG grants and seek to draw attention to all the participating funders and organizations. Perhaps Guidestar, Charity Navigator, and BBB Wise Giving Alliance could find a way to note which nonprofits had received one of these special awards, and from which foundation.

Wouldn’t it be interesting to see which organizations foundations chose and why? And whether some received multiple grants from multiple funders? Perhaps the organizations could come together with their funders in some forum to discuss their work—and inspire others to achieve their levels of effectiveness.

That’s the idea, for what it’s worth. I am interested to hear what funders think.

Last year, this idea didn’t get much traction, perhaps because it simply isn’t a good idea, or perhaps because it was a little late in the game – less than two months in advance – to raise the idea. Seeing Timms in New York again last week inspired me to try again, this time with more lead time.

I hope that, this year, foundations will see #GivingTuesday, which has become a highly visible global event, as an opportunity to seize. Now would be a good time to begin the planning.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP and a regular columnist in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. His last blog post discussed “emergent strategy.”  You can find him on Twitter @PhilCEP.

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