Listening, Learning, Reassessing: Translating Potential to Effectiveness

Anthony Richardson

Successful organizations and people have at least one thing in common: they are honest with themselves about their strengths and limitations. As executive director of a mid-sized foundation, I know we do not possess the human capital or spending power to single-handedly turn around a low-performing school district, transform a continuum of care for homeless families, or align a workforce-to-livable-wage ecosystem. As such, we work tirelessly to build both public and private partnerships as well as leverage subject matter experts in pursuit of those goals.

Over the years, I have been privileged to work with high-performing grantee partners, attend national conferences, participate in peer-to-peer exchanges, join learning communities, and meet foundation leaders across the country. Through my travels and work, I am constantly reminded that no organization or person is an island; we cannot do it alone.

While I have never met a foundation leader who lacked compassion or empathy, I have come across several who work for organizations that are simply not interested in tackling complex issues. Instead, they fund the same charities year after year, operate in self-imposed silos, and lament over our social fabric’s decay as if they are powerless and have no voice. When philanthropy is silent on pressing issues, we inherently become complicit in reinforcing the status quo. Foundation boards and staff must remember: to whom much is given, much more is expected.

Foundations have a larger calling than spending time at board meetings, pondering, say, whether or not to require grassroots organizations to submit independent, audited financial statements as a prerequisite to funding. We cannot lose the forest for the trees. In this example, most grassroots organizations cannot afford independent audits, and therefore such a requirement is simply a barrier to access and funding. Dedicating our limited time in the boardroom on a gatekeeping measure rather than spending it listening to and learning from nonprofit leaders and organizations about the results they are achieving limits our ability to play a role in bringing about real change.

The real work happens in our communities through direct service, advocacy, and organizing — not in boardrooms. In that spirit, funders must be listeners, as well as flexible and responsive to the challenges of today so that we can co-envision and co-build the communities of tomorrow.

There are several key questions funders must ask themselves when deciding whether to fund a project or launch a foundation-driven initiative:

  1. Does this work/project align with our stated mission, vision, and values? If not, how can we connect this organization or work to other funders?
  2. If we choose to engage in this work/project, are there other organizations or governmental entities supporting the same or similar work? If so, how can we avoid duplication and align our resources as partners and co-investors?
  3. What do we know about the ecosystem in which this work/project functions?
  4. Do we have the requisite subject matter expertise to engage in this work? If not, how can we develop it internally and/or identify prospective partners with such expertise?
  5. Any endeavor to bring forth sustainable, transformational change will not occur within the confines of foundation grant cycles or reporting deadlines. As such, do we possess the necessary patience and fortitude to make long-term investments?

My privilege as a foundation employee is not lost on me, and I am truly inspired by philanthropy’s potential. But it appears the greatest barrier to realizing that potential comes from within our own organizations and sector.

In philanthropy, the best organizations take socially and financially responsible risk to reach a level of practice in which failure has no power over creativity or appetite to forge ahead. Effective organizations value learning and only fall short when they embark upon an endeavor and fail to learn from it. Such organizations have a clear vision: they know their strengths and limitations, they constantly reassess, and they are unapologetic about who they seek to serve.

We must not forget the importance of continually revisiting our missions and honestly asking: are we fulfilling it or betraying it?

Anthony Richardson, J.D., is executive director of the Nord Family Foundation in Amherst, Ohio.

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