No More Messing Around Like We Have Been: A Thank You to a Crusader for Better Philanthropy

There is a lot of rhetoric and bluster about effective philanthropy.  But one person who, over the course of his terrific career, has really focused on practical, tangible steps to make philanthropy better is Joel Orosz.

Joel recently announced his decision to retire from his position at Grand Valley State University due to his battle with cancer.  Joel will continue to serve as an advisor at the GVSU Johnson Center and to write on philanthropy – and so will keep up his efforts to make philanthropy better. Still, I think his announcement warrants a very big “thank you” for all he has done to this point.

Mine is only one, limited perspective on his contributions – I first met Joel less than a decade ago – but I wanted to offer it here.

Joel is the author of two important books on grantmaking: The Insider’s Guide to Grantmaking and Effective Foundation Management: 14 Challenges of Philanthropic Leadership – and How to Outfox ThemThe latter book, as I wrote at the time of its publication, should be required reading for every foundation leader, trustee, and new donor.  It is even more timely now than it was when it was published in 2007, as billionaires line up with Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to take the Giving Pledge.

The book opens with these words:

Foundations fail.  Not invariably, of course, nor always egregiously, but far too often.  If the Gospel according to St. Luke is correct – if of those to whom much is given, much is expected – than foundations, which are given so much in the way of resources and the freedom to deploy them, are not delivering expected results. …. This is not entirely the fault of foundation leaders, for the simple sounding act of giving away money to good causes is fraught with unexpectedly knotty complexities.  This is hardly a novel insight; back in 1967, Warren Weaver, a longtime vice president of the Rockefeller Foundation, wrote that “giving away money wisely is extraordinarily subtle and difficult task, with moral, social and intellectual complications that keep the conscience active and the mind bothered.”

Joel goes on to say, however, that the “lion’s share of the blame for poor performance … can be laid at the leadership’s door.”  He argues that “the failures of foundations” arise from “predictable challenges and recognizable dilemmas.”  His book seeks both to lay out those challenges and dilemmas and to offer wise counsel on how to overcome them, and it succeeds beautifully.

Joel is a deep thinker and an incredibly gifted writer, and his writing is pragmatic in a way much writing about philanthropy is not.  But Joel has never been content to just write.  His passion to improve philanthropy inspired him to be the founding director of the Grantmaking School at the Johnson Center.  The School seeks to educate grantmaking professionals “on topics such as strategic grantmaking, due diligence, ethics and accountability.”

Some – most notably the scholar Peter Frumkin – have questioned whether Joel’s efforts to foster greater professionalism in the field of philanthropy represent a step forward or something to be resisted – even feared.  I had the privilege of participating in a Hudson Institute debate with Joel and Peter a couple of years ago and walked away thoroughly convinced that it is Joel who is on the right side of this one.  I have a clear memory of my favorite moment of an exchange in which both Peter and I grew rather testy while Joel remained ever calm and affable.  Joel, in a light-hearted and humorous way that only he could pull off, said this:

I don’t want to caricature your position too much, Peter. Maybe just a little. But it reminds me very much of Pat Paulsen’s position on Vietnam when he was running. He said, some people say we should escalate and that’s clearly wrong, and some people say that we should precipitously withdraw, and that’s wrong. His position was to “keep messing around like we have been.”

Joel is convinced that we need to build on experience and learn from failures in order to chart a path toward more effective philanthropy, resulting in more positive impact on people, issues, and communities.  No more “messing around like we have been.”

In this interview on the GVSU web site, Joel takes issue convincingly with the notion that becoming more professional in philanthropic work means being rigid or uncreative, arguing that this perspective is a “smokescreen that’s thrown up by people who really want to continue to have total freedom to be arbitrary.”

In contributing so much, Joel has drawn on his experience as a program director at the W.K Kellogg Foundation, where he established and developed the Foundation’s Philanthropy and Volunteerism program area.  He has served on numerous boards and is a member of CEP’s Advisory Board.  In that capacity, in which I hope he will continue, he has contributed significantly to our work – offering counsel on draft reports, encouraging me and my colleagues here (when we really needed it), and serving as a guest blogger on the CEP blog.

Joel has been nothing short of inspiring in responding to the news that he was fighting a brutal disease.  His letter of July 15 announcing his retirement begins:

I remember reading once about a professional football player who concluded that the time had come to hang up his cleats.  When a reporter asked him why he had decided that his playing days were over, the athlete responded: “I knew it was time to leave when my brain began writing checks that my body could not cash.” I used to chuckle about that anecdote, but no longer, for now I am living it.

Joel is courageous in every sense of the word and is the kind of person who makes those around him better, as anyone who has interacted with him understands.  He has certainly made philanthropy better.

For that, I wanted simply to say, “Thank you, Joel.”

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