Foundation CEO Angst: Moral Imperatives and Insomnia

Phil Buchanan and Ellie Buteau

By Phil Buchanan and Ellie Buteau

More than two-thirds of the CEOs of large, staffed foundations in the United States believe foundations have the potential to make a significant difference in society. That’s the good (and perhaps hardly surprising) news in a new report from our organization, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP).

But there is bad news, too, and some may find it more surprising. A much smaller proportion — just 13 percent — of the 167 foundation CEOs responding to a survey we fielded believe that foundations are making a significant difference today. Instead, most characterize the current difference foundations make as “moderate” and cite a number of barriers that impede foundation impact. For the most part, foundation leaders point the finger not at others — such as their grantees or the government — but at themselves, with two-thirds saying internal barriers at their own foundations are getting in the way of greater impact.

Foundation leaders are often described (caricatured, even) behind closed doors as self-satisfied, self-congratulatory, and complacent, and, to be sure, we’ve met a few that fit that description in our time at CEP. But our research, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in conjunction with its 50th anniversary, reveals a group of leaders who are better described as highly self-critical, deeply anxious, and seeking urgently to do better.

We’ve been taking the pulse of foundation leaders for 15 years at CEP through various surveys and research studies, and we’ve never heard foundation leaders exhibit so much angst about their efforts or their prospects for impact.

Read the entire post on the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog here.

Ellie Buteau is vice president, research, at CEP and lead author of  The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective. Phil Buchanan is president of CEP.

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