Discussing the Role of Foundation Staff

This week, CEP President Phil Buchanan has taken on the critique that large, staffed foundations are plodding along on the fast path to extinction while newer, leaner foundations are ushering in the future of philanthropy. In this series, titled “Foundation Staff Matter,” Buchanan has each day challenged these assertions, highlighting the importance that staff play in foundation’s abilities to effectively work with grantees to drive positive social change.

As we head into Labor Day weekend, it’s the perfect time to take a breath at the intermission of the series and recap this week’s posts and the conversations that have followed. The series will conclude with its final four posts next week.

Thus Far in “Foundation Staff Matter”

On Monday, Buchanan introduced the series, pointing to articles by Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan and Napster founder Sean Parker that have criticized big, staffed foundations for their bureaucracy and supposed underperformance. Buchanan identifies his four main counterpoints to such critiques:

  • First, it’s not actually clear that the new foundations being heralded for their slim staffs will be so thin five or 10 years from now — or even that they’re particularly slender now!
  • Second, the small size and great diversity of nonprofits often requires larger foundations to have enough staff to be able to interact with many different entities and to be knowledgeable enough to make good decisions about who to fund.
  • Third, our data and analysis of tens of thousands of surveys of grantees of nearly 300 foundations shows the benefit — to grantees — when foundations have sufficient numbers of staff for the goals and operating strategies they’ve chosen.
  • Fourth, it’s not just about numbers — the quality of staff and of staff culture matters, because what happens inside a foundation’s walls ripples outside those walls.

In his second post, “Are the New Big Foundations Lean or Just in the Process of Staffing Up?”, Buchanan dives into his first main point: that the new, lean foundations championed by Callahan and others may very well simply be in the early stages of organizing and staffing up — a process that takes time.

The post led to a lively discussion in the comment section, including an interesting back-and-forth between Buchanan and Callahan. William and Flora Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer also chimed in, comparing the lean staffing argument to the argument in favor of lower overhead among operating nonprofits, stressing the importance of context for every foundation and its mission in its decision-making. “It is effectiveness that matters in the end,” Kramer writes. “There are many ways to do philanthropy, and staff size does and should vary depending on how one works…The idea that smaller is better is a misleading oversimplification.”

The series’ third post, “It Takes Staff to Get to Know Nonprofits, Communities, and Fields,” focuses on the importance of staff to building productive, informed, and supportive relationships between funders and grantees. Buchanan discusses how, if foundations are to truly learn about and connect with nonprofits and the communities and fields in which they work, it takes time and hard work. With so many nonprofits doing different types of work in different fields and communities, adequate staff are indispensable for a funder’s capacity to stay in touch with grantees and the challenges they face — which significantly affects foundations’ ability to best support grantees in their pursuit of their mission.

And in yesterday’s post, “No One Model,” Buchanan highlights the diversity of foundation approaches and how that necessitates a diversity in staffing approaches, as well — there is no catch-all, lean model that leads to effectiveness. To drive home his point, Buchanan points to the work of UTEC, a nonprofit in Lowell, Massachusetts that is driving significant change for at-risk youth in a single community. UTEC’s CEO, Gregg Croteau, discusses how different approaches of different funders gave UTEC the right type of support suitable to its needs and goals to pursue local solutions to a local problem.

We hope that this series has helped bring an important issue — the role of foundation staff — to the fore. We have been excited to see the conversations that the series has prompted, especially the dialogue between Buchanan and Callahan in the blog’s comment section, which we view as an open forum for thoughtful discussion of this topic. Twitter has also been a great space to follow as folks from throughout the sector weigh in:

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We welcome comments and feedback on the ideas shared in this series. Please do not hesitate to tweet your thoughts @CEPData or share a comment, and stay tuned next week for the final four posts of the series.

Next week in “Foundation Staff Matter”

Tuesday: The approach of one foundation that may not be “lean” but is getting results — because it puts relationships front and center and excels in strengthening its grantees to pursue shared goals.

Wednesday: What we know from CEP’s data about what it takes for foundations to provide valuable assistance beyond the grant to nonprofits (hint: it rhymes with “laugh”).

Thursday: What we know from CEP’s data about the relationship between both staff quality and staff culture and the grantee experience.

Friday: Closing argument — why this all matters and why foundation boards should avoid succumbing to the foundation version of the “overhead myth.”

Ethan McCoy is writer – development and communications at CEP.

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