Discussing Hewlett President Selection: Presumptuous?

I’ve gotten lots of fascinating suggestions from readers of potential candidates to replace Paul Brest at the Hewlett Foundation. But first I want to discuss some pushback I’ve been getting from people who believe we shouldn’t even be having this discussion (to be clear, I’ve received no such complaints from anyone at the Hewlett Foundation).

The Hewlett Foundation is a private foundation whose board has sole and absolute authority to select their next president. But they are also an organization that seeks to exert influence on the public good and actively seeks to engage with the public. I see absolutely nothing wrong with having a public discussion about the decisions that Hewlett, or any large foundation, makes or contemplates making. These sorts of discussions happen all the time in regards to large for-profit companies. In both the for-profit and nonprofit case, the boards have authority to make the decisions they see fit and the public has the right to express any opinions they might have.

That being said, the emails I’ve gotten from very senior members of the philanthropic community – people whose opinions I respect very much – suggest that my hosting this discussion is far more controversial than I might have guessed. I intend no disrespect to the Hewlett board. I do not believe that anyone other than the board has or should have any vote on the matters of the Hewlett Foundation. I do not presume that my opinions or the opinions of my readers are any more valid than anyone else’s. I readily admit that my goal – advancing the field of philanthropy – overlaps with only a portion of the Hewlett Foundation’s mission.

But there is nothing wrong with the public, stakeholders in the common good over which the Hewlett Foundation and all large foundations seek to exert influence, holding discussions and expressing opinions on the actions of these foundations.

Why am I hosting this discussion? Because I, and every reader of this blog, have a vested interest in the development of the field of philanthropy. The Hewlett Foundation has been the most influential foundation exerting influence over the development of our field under the leadership of Paul Brest. With Paul announcing he is stepping down, I care a lot about who replaces him. Do I have any say in the matter or should I have one? No. But the public has every right to discuss those things which effect us. This is a bedrock principal of a vibrant public commons and the field of philanthropy does itself a disservice if it seeks in any way to limit public discourse about the development of the field.

The majority of the comments I’ve received about this discussion have been very positive. Of the negative ones that suggested I was breaching some kind of taboo, most were framed as not so much a complaint from the author but a warning that the discussion would be frowned upon by others.

Maybe I am breaking some unwritten rule that the decisions of foundations boards should not be discussed in public. But if that is in fact an unwritten rule, it is one I feel completely at ease breaking. I see no ethical prohibition on members of the public debating the decisions of foundations boards. I also will defend completely the right of private foundations to make whatever decisions their boards’ see fit.


  1. Gordon Strause says:

    Wow! I can’t believe this would be an issue for anyone.

    I work at Yahoo!, and there is obviously much fevered speculation going on in the tech press about who will replace Carol Bartz. And while it’s fair to say that not everyone at Yahoo! appreciates every article, I don’t know a single person who considers these articles inappropriate.

    Why in the world would it be any different in the foundation world (where, as you point out, there is actually a much greater public interest component)?

    For me, this is really a reminder (and frankly an indictment) of how overly insular and secretive the foundation world can be.

  2. Paul Brest says:

    I am not taking any part in the search for my successor as president of the Hewlett Foundation, but if I were on the Foundation’s search committee I would welcome ideas from readers of Sean’s blog.

  3. David Hunter says:

    The fact that it is controvertial that Sean is hosting this discussion points to incredible arrogance – and resitance by many in the philanthropic sector to the notion that foundations are (or more accrately: should be) accountable to the public. Lets remember that foundations are (as has been noted by many) double tax-exempted institutions….because, presumably, they are charged with creating social value. Hence the public does indeed have a vested interest in foundations and their leaders, and should be encouraged to express opinions on any aspect of these matters.

  4. That some would find this objectionable is another indicator of how the world of social change, social good–or whatever one’s term of preference–is changing faster than philanthropy’s ability to keep pace. What Sean has done is a kind of 2.0 version of what headhunters do every day: get names of potential candidates from others. People use blogs and social media to express their opinions about virtually everything: why not, the decisions of foundations? No one is suggesting that foundation presidents be chosen by popular referendum. The deliberations of the Trustees will and should be private and the choice they make will be the most important one in their tenure as board members. Recommendations from a variety of people who know and care about philanthropy and the common good can only help that process.

  5. Thanks for getting this discussion going, Sean.

    I’m not surprised that some thought you presumptuous, and I’m glad you forged ahead with the conversation. Your defense of the public interest in how our nation’s philanthropies operate is right on point. The more people are willing to have these kinds of discussions, the faster we’ll see philanthropy improve.

    I do take issue with your contention that the Hewlett Foundation has been the “most influential” force in philanthropy. They have been hugely influential, to be sure. But so have others. It depends on how you define “our field”. The Ford Foundation, for example, is and has been the cornerstone for advancing social justice philanthropy worldwide. The C.S. Mott Foundation has done more than any other funder to advance community foundations. In terms of sheer dollars, Ford’s philanthropy program dwarfs Hewlett’s. Ford gave out $20M in 2010 for social justice philanthropy, while Hewlett’s program gave out about $4M.

    • Thanks Aaron. That’s an interesting point. I may be defining the field of philanthropy by what has my particular interest, which isn’t very fair. I’m aware of both Mott and Ford’s programs, but think of them as issue focused, rather than the issue-agnostic philanthropic practice advancement that Gates and Hewlett are working on. That’s not exactly a defense of my statements, just an explanation.

  6. Aaron makes very good points about judging influence in philanthropy. What is truly important about the four foundations mentioned: Hewlett, Ford, Mott and Gates is that they are big influential foundations that care about philanthropy as a field and are willing to invest in it. It is mistaken to characterize Mott and Ford’s investments as only issue-based. Both foundations have invested heavily over many years in key philanthropy infrastructure organizations in the United States and worldwide (like the European Foundation Centre, WINGS, etc.). Ford led a large initiative to capitalize community foundations in the U.S. as well as an initiative to create grantmaking foundations in many parts of the world. Paul Brest, like Susan Berresford and Bill White also invested personal time and committment to writing and speaking about the practice of philanthropy, not just the causes and issues it supports.

    • Fair enough Brad and Aaron. I stand by my statement that Hewlett’s philanthropy program has had the largest influence on the development of the field, but I don’t mean to ignore the efforts of others.