Putting "The People" in PhilanthropySeptember 24, 2009 5 Comments
We had an interesting conversation during last week’s Engage for Results session at the Donors Forum in Chicago. IISC has been partnering with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) to offer this two day skill-building session to foundations interested in strategies for engaging stakeholders in their grantmaking. This offering grew out of GEO’s Change Agent Project, which revealed the strong interest on the part of nonprofits to be in deeper relationship with funders in order to achieve greater impact.
On the first morning, I shared some striking results from a 2008 GEO survey of attitudes and practices of foundations in the United States. Specifically, less than half (49%) of those foundations surveyed indicated that it was important for their organization to seek external input. Among GEO membership the number was higher, coming in at 78%. However, the survey also showed that overall only 36% of respondents actively solicited feedback from their grantees. That strikes as quite a discrepancy between stated beliefs and actual practice. So I turned to the workshop participants for reactions.
The ensuing discussion touched on a variety of possible reasons for this gap. What came up for me as I listened and thought back to other conversations in past Engage for Results workshops, was the discomfort that some foundation staff experience when confronted by the anticipated demands of being more responsive to their grantees and other stakeholders. It seems that many foundations just aren’t well-equipped or structured to be very collaborative. There is also some question out there about whether all foundations need to be inclusive of grantee perspectives. While I’m not able to offer an answer here, I am struck by the degree to which philanthropy overall seems to lag behind the private and public sectors in terms of its demonstrated interest in being more customer-driven.
With President Obama’s push to make government more transparent and participatory and businesses understanding the importance of tuning into the desires of customers, I find it relatively disheartening to hear where the conversation is in philanthropy. Part of the explanation seems to reside in the irrationality of the non-profit financial market in which foundations sit, not to mention their considerable position of power. Simply put, funders can afford to be unresponsive and hold onto top-down models of doing business . . . for now. Marty Neumeier has pointed out that this is the management model that, when applied in the private sector today, frequently leads to “distrustful customers, disheartened employees, and suspicious communities.” On top of this, the “wicked problems” out there reveal the impotence of acting in isolation. All of this said, I find hope in GEO members and other funders who are earnestly exploring what it means to be more effective and accountable as well as the new and increasingly diverse foundation staff members who are asking important questions about power, privilege, and possibilities for funders to re-organize and run themselves in a complex networked world. Philanthropy 2.0, where art thou?