The Art Of Philanthropy: Empowerment and Diffusion

William Keator

This is the second post in a series on “The Art of Philanthropy,” a high-altitude look at the power foundations hold, related issues, and potential solutions.

In my last post on the “art of philanthropy,” I discussed how the funder-grantee power dynamic continues to vex the philanthropic sector. In this post, the second of three in the series, we will look more closely at prescriptive and non-prescriptive approaches, including justifications for each.

Defining Prescriptive and Non-Prescriptive Models

For clarity, let’s define a prescriptive funding model as one in which the foundation asserts its expertise and takes the lead in shaping initiatives or proposals. This can occur both intentionally and unintentionally. In either case, it usually begins with too narrowly defined guidelines/RFPs. In a non-prescriptive model (not to be confused with a hands-off approach), a foundation plays a more supportive role in proposal development through an inclusive emphasis on grantee expertise, desired goals and needs, etc.

The characteristics of grant seekers should be critical when determining which approach a foundation takes.  In most cases, high-capacity grant seekers are served best through non-prescriptive practices, while low-capacity nonprofits generally need a more prescriptive model. The many nonprofits that fall in the middle should be viewed on a case-by-case basis at the program- or grantee-specific levels.

A Strategic Choice Toward Full Potential

Darren Walker’s and Greg Gross’s quotations, which I shared in my last post, each highlight the conflicting nature of where ideas come from and advocate for the marketplace of ideas. Of course, the root cause of this conflict in the social sector is that foundations and nonprofits employ accomplished professionals each with their own ideas, goals, and aspirations. The natural bias that comes with expertise only deepens this problem, especially with the power foundations hold.

When foundations rely too heavily on their own program area expertise, they are theoretically shrinking the marketplace of ideas to those held within the scope of their experts. The same can be said about the expertise that grant seekers hold. The difference, however, is that funders have the option to work with a wide range of experts, while nonprofits must rely mostly on their own, albeit while open to learning. In practice, this presents foundations with a strategic choice on how to employ their expertise. On whichever direction a foundation decides, this decision should be made with the marketplace of ideas in mind.

The other major difference, which unfortunately is not obvious to enough foundations, is that funders do not operate on the ground. Foundations are at best twice removed from the people they ultimately serve. Any foundation that thinks otherwise should consider becoming an operating foundation.

This is precisely why the quotations from Walker and Gross are so compelling. Combining their words, we could say their collective message is: until foundations understand their role as “the supporting cast,” “funders and grantees will never realize their full potential.” 

A Non-Prescriptive Model

The Walker/Gross message offers a balanced, non-prescriptive model to capture the art of philanthropy. Both suggest that meaningful partnerships are formed at the start of the process, rather than through asking grant seekers to enlist in a foundation’s ideas first.

Doubts about this type of approach are understandable since a weak non-prescriptive model can devolve into a hands-off approach, in which grants are used to win friends, enhance personal/professional reputations, and otherwise influence people. There is no rule that a non-prescriptive approach should be hands off, or that tough questions must be set aside. But, fortunately, these undisciplined versions of charity masquerading as philanthropy have become outliers in most professionally staffed foundations. After all, foundations do not have to sacrifice quality when they seek grantee ideas first; work to strengthen — not commandeer — proposals by sharing expertise; and assist with the development of clear, realistic, agreed-upon goals.

When foundations yield power and open themselves up to a wider range of ideas, they benefit from empowering grantees to pursue what they (the grantees) believe matters most.  Non-prescriptive approaches tend to work best with competition, which can drive quality and reduce fears that yielding power will result in lesser proposals. In this approach, which provides strong validation to grantees through competition and embracing their ideas, a foundation will benefit from the enthusiasm this generates in their grantees’ work over the course of any grant period.

An effective non-prescriptive foundation does all of the above while drawing a line under its assistance. It manages grantee expectations to make sure that foundation assistance is not misunderstood. This includes reminding grant seekers that after their best proposal is developed, it will be judged fairly in competition with others.

A Prescriptive Model

Prescriptive funding models are still necessary because there will always be times when the best use of funds calls for this approach.

One argument for prescriptive models can claim that society faces too many complex issues that must be addressed as soon as possible. Therefore, it is too inefficient for foundations with a high degree of expertise to follow a non-prescriptive model; there simply is not time to look for and sift through the full marketplace of ideas when problems are so pressing. Similarly, competent foundations should not slow the pursuit of their goals while waiting for grantees to take ownership of a foundation solution(s). And since most grantees will buy in over time, strong foundations must move the sectors they support forward quickly and efficiently.

Prescriptive approaches can also be blended into a foundation’s operations on a case-by-case basis that factors in grantee capacity, program area needs, community issues, etc. For example, work with low-capacity organizations tends to require a more prescriptive approach that should lessen over time. And even within a non-prescriptive funding model, there are times when grantees stand to benefit from a prescriptive jolt.

The Big Strategic Insight

These concepts will always be works in progress. To yield power consistently is hard — really hard. So it is understandable that some funders could still be reluctant about non-prescriptive notions. But funders should let go of these concerns.

Where ideas come from is a strategic decision, and it is not unique to the foundation sector. Silicon Valley has a long history with its own ideas. Steve Jobs explained this in a 1989 Inc. magazine interview:

The big insight a lot of us had in the 1970s had to do with the importance of putting that tool in the hands of individuals. Let’s say that – for the same amount of money it takes to build the most powerful computer in the world – you could make 1,000 computers with one-thousandth the power and put them in the hands of 1,000 creative people. You’ll get more out of doing that than out of having one person use the most powerful computer in the world. Because people are inherently creative. They will use tools in ways the toolmakers never thought possible. And once a person figures out how to do something with that tool, he or she can share it with the other 999…. It’s an extremely powerful paradigm. It’s what has driven a bunch of us since this whole thing began to happen, and it hasn’t changed. It hasn’t changed for me since 1975.

Given Jobs’s well-chronicled career, this might be a headscratcher for some to read because, in our terms, the assumed legend of Jobs comes across as highly prescriptive. Jobs certainly had great expertise in his field, and he probably had a wealth of opinions on Apple’s products. Yet he resisted the temptation to impose his ideas on people outside of the organization. Instead, he trusted “an extremely powerful paradigm” to leverage innovation and creativity.

Jobs embraced empowerment over enlistment. He chose to diffuse power instead of concentrate it. He and other leaders made an important strategic decision to play a long-term, non-prescriptive role in support of the “inherently creative.” And philanthropy can do the same.

If foundations want to maximize their long-term impact, then they must yield a large degree of the power they hold over grantees. 

William Keator spent 20 years in philanthropy. He is currently working on an education-related book.

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