Legacy Foundations and Risk-Taking: Different Approaches to Empowered Philanthropy

Dara Major

This post originally appeared on Philanthropy New York’s PhilanthroPost blog

For the last decade or so, the philanthropic sector has been struggling to adapt to changing external conditions — including government devolution, the rise of the knowledge economy, the dramatic deepening of inequality, new players, new opportunities, and a growing popular awareness of philanthropy itself — and by extension reckoning with its very purpose. Some major, mainstream national conference themes throughout this period can be distilled as:

  • Should a foundation have goals and strategies?
  • Should a foundation engage stakeholders?
  • Should a foundation invest in things that are counter to its mission?

Yikes. What makes this sector unique is not that it wrestles with these questions, but that such a large segment of it struggles to align practice with purpose.

For instance, according to a recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, fully two-thirds of foundation CEOs believe it is possible for foundations to make a significant difference in society — but few think they are actually doing it. Why? Most cited internal organizational barriers that are under their own control to address: too many goals, lack of agreement on goals, undisciplined implementation of strategies, lack of long-term commitment, and … fear.

Yes, fear.

For years, we’ve endured debates about thinking like a business and not thinking like a business. About general operating support and program support. About whether having a goal is a good thing or a bad thing. About whether the head or heart should guide philanthropy.

Meanwhile, disasters — let’s call them what they are — continued to unfold all around foundations. Today the U.S. is on the cusp of a massive shift in federal legislative priorities that may threaten the basic rights, health, and safety of millions of people — undocumented, black, white, LGBTQ, older, and younger people alike — paired with a massive tax overhaul that aspires to both starve the federal government of revenue and feed on nonprofit sector endowments.

Enter David Callahan — the provocateur behind Inside Philanthropy and author of The Givers — who argues that traditional foundations are doing it wrong and entrepreneurial new donors are doing it right; established foundations are trapped by “legacy,” whereas new philanthropy LLCs are free to take risks.

Perhaps. In my experience, however, legacy can also be a powerful source of inspiration and motivation. Especially when, in the case of many traditional foundations, that legacy includes having had a direct and profound impact on public policy, education, civil rights, education, and basic and applied science.

Now is the time for all of us to bring our very best selves to our work, whether that happens in a traditional foundation, LLC, or through a DAF — and whether you’re the fearful CEO of a foundation, a fearless new donor, a long-time dedicated staffer, or a consultant like me. Let’s embrace the power of philanthropic diversity and work together toward more empowered philanthropy. 

If you’re not sure where to start, ask yourself: what am I willing to put on the line, who can I do it with, and how can we take the first step together — today?

Dara Major is a philanthropic and social sector advisor. Find her at www.daramajor.com and follow her on Twitter at @daramajor.

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