Doing Greater Good for the Greater Good

Charis Loh and Ellie Buteau

Philanthropy alone cannot solve the problems our society faces, but it has a vital role to play. We know this because it has historically played such a role, even as we can all agree that we wish it had achieved more. Over the past many years, philanthropy has contributed to advancements in civil rights, environmental protections, and dramatic improvement in children’s health globally. Recognizing these changes reminds us of the role philanthropy has played, can play, and will play for the greater good.

When we think of the potential for the role philanthropy will play in the future, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that during the past two decades, more than 30,000 private foundations have been created in the United States.

Because of what philanthropy can achieve, in our eyes, and because of this significant number of new foundations being created, it’s particularly important for leaders of early-stage grantmaking organizations to seize the opportunity to start strong. By drawing upon the lessons those who have gone before them have learned, leaders of nascent philanthropic organizations can avoid common strategic and operational pitfalls — and in doing so position their organizations to create as much of a positive impact as possible.

Effectiveness matters, particularly for early-stage grantmaking organizations.

CEP’s New Research Report for Leaders of New Organizations

The resulting report, out today and titled Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations, draws upon the perspectives of 35 leaders of 14 organizations, each with assets of at least $350 million. Interviewees shared candidly the lessons they learned about what it takes to get a major grantmaking organization off the ground. Through stories and words of advice, they emphasized the need for three key elements:

  1. Leadership characterized by humility, courage, and resourcefulness;
  2. Shared understanding among donors, board, staff, and grantees about how the organization will approach its work; and
  3. An organization with a sense of what success is and an orientation toward learning.

One overarching theme we heard loud and clear from interviewees was the importance of humility and learning throughout the early years. Only in retrospect did interviewees realize how much they did not know — and could not have known — at the outset of the work. They advised others to be open to learning from other foundations and nonprofits, as well as from their own experience about what has and has not worked.

We believe this research report can be a helpful resource for donors and leaders seeking to learn more about leading an early-stage grantmaking organization effectively. While some of the lessons for leading an effective grantmaking organization are relevant for any stage of an organization’s lifecycle, leaders of young organizations can steward their time, effort, and money best when they implement sound practices from the beginning.

And when they do so, they can more effectively do greater good for the greater good.

Ellie Buteau is vice president, research, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @e_buteau. Charis Loh is manager, research, at CEP.

Download Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations here

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