Early on in my days as CEP’s first chief executive officer, when we were just trying to get the organization off the ground, I visited with a CEP Board member in her office south of San Francisco. She was new to the Board and very direct.
“Show me your calendar,” she said. “Tell me how you spend your time.”
I was taken aback. My first instinct was that it was none of her business. But I obliged — walking her through my previous week or two.
Later, I thought about her question and realized both that it was a crucially important one and that, in fact, it was very much her business. I worked for her and the other board members, after all, and how I was spending my time, the judgments I was making about what to do — and not do — were going to be crucial to the organization’s success or failure.
Much of my energy in those days was focused on figuring out how we could do things that both had the influence we wanted to have on foundation practice and generated revenue. I worried constantly — about meeting payroll, about paying office space rent. I was spending my time crafting research proposals that might get funded, trying to figure out an earned revenue model, developing relationships.
Worrying all the time about revenue.
CEOs of private foundations, of course, don’t have that worry. “What a great gig!” I remember thinking as I met with more and more of them.
But over the past 14 years I have come to understand how the freedom that comes with leading a foundation actually makes the job extremely difficult, at least if you’re going to do it well — if you’re really focused on making as much of an impact as possible with the foundation’s resources. The range of options — of things you could do, of ways you could spend your time — are almost overwhelming.
In part because there are so many things a foundation leader could do, and in part because there are few, if any, naturally occurring feedback loops, it’s perhaps easier to drift away from what’s most important — or for there to be a disconnect between what a leader says is important and how she actually spends her time.
On Wednesday, in the opening plenary of CEP’s biennial conference in San Francisco, my CEP colleagues Ellie Buteau, Kevin Bolduc, and I will present some data that raises questions for foundation leaders to consider about the choices they’re making in three crucial areas:
- investing practices and how they do — or don’t — connect to social impact;
- staying connected to the needs of those on the ground — grantees and intended beneficiaries;
- and internal culture and staff performance.
More to come.
Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilCEP.