Foundation Employee Comments

A few weeks ago, I wrote:

Very few foundation employees ever comment on this blog. I’d love them to join the discourse, but I get the sense they feel it is far too risky to let an individual express an opinion that might not be inline with “official foundation statements”. I think it’s a shame, because their point of view is being left out of the debate.

This week I got two anonymous comments. From “sm”:

As always the reasons for something like this are always more complex than one might assume. I am an individual working in a regional Foundation in the Midwest and the truth of the matter is that our organization is just starting to come to this blog thing.

And from “ewj”:

I worked for a foundation that had great successes and big failures. We published some of those failures. All transparency did was to allow our so-called failure to eclipse the many successes in discussions. Transparency only means something if you are looking at a big vision, wanting big changes, and asking people most impacted to change.

I appreciate both of you leaving your thoughts. My question for “sm” is as foundations begin to become more familiar with blogs, what is your advice (as someone who reads blogs) for them? Should it be acceptable for foundation employees to leave comments on blogs and reveal their identity?

My question for ewj is what was the negative affect from having your failures get more attention than your successes? Did it hinder your ability to achieve the foundation’s mission? Did people lose their job? Did it hurt moral? No one likes to be criticized, but was there tangible negative implications for the foundation due to your failures “eclipsing” your many successes?

Thanks to both of you for leaving your thoughts.


  1. Holden says:

    I have another question for ewj:

    Were you surprised that your failures drew more attention than your successes? Not only is it more unusual, but discussing failures is almost always useful whereas discussing successes very often isn’t. Is your goal to look good, or to help people? If your goal is to help people, isn’t it completely natural, expected, and good that 99% of the dialogue is around what could and should be improved?

  2. Eli says:

    I’m all in favor of discourse and transparency, and actually blog (with my foundation hat) on both subjects. I do think, however, that all bloggers and commenters struggle with the personal vs. professional opinion — especially in the blogosphere which allows us to share opinions so publicly and where the zeitgeist is one of authenticity. I struggle regularly whether my thoughts are appropriate as the thoughts of my foundation, public as it may be, or whether they should reside in my perosonal blog. Most bloggers get around this with a disclaimer. I, personally, hate dislaimers.

  3. Eli, given that you blog both personally and professionally and given your experience with “cutting edge” philanthropy at GlobalGiving and Ashoka, you seem ideally positioned to commenting on these issues.

    It would be great if you would expand your thoughts on how foundations should approach blogging, what they can get out of it, what the drawbacks might be and how they can deal with the tension between authenticity and professionalism.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  4. My 2 cents: blogging is a tool that offers foundations another opportunity to reach audiences with which it wants to engage. It’s probably best suited for those foundations that are already comfortable discussing their work in a very public way but that also want to hear back from folks outside the organization. In other words, to get a conversation going. One of the nice things about blogging is that there isn’t a right or wrong way. Rather, you put something out there and those who care to can respond.

  5. Eli says:

    I agree with Bruce. Blogging is very web 2.0 where fierce conversations live and individual perspectives are moveable — based on those conversations. Most foundations are not living in this world, and are still very much focused on the best people being able to develop the best ideas, not unlike centralized planning. That’s a whole different subject, but my point is that I think the real struggle (when it comes to foundations and blogging) is not between authenticity and professionalism but authenticity and willingness to learn (or admitting we don’t know everything). Engaging in fierce conversations, authentic conversations, assumes you don’t always know the answer. I think foundations that are learning organizations (or want to be learning organizations) are predisposed to blogging — engaging in a conversation with multiple stakeholders or regular ol’ readers to gather perspectives during planning, implementation, and post-mortem. This would a be a great step for ‘traditional foundations’ to take to begin defining their own accountability.

    Unfortnately, many foundations (a few of them linked to the right) are simply looking at blogs as another marketing tool. That’s sad.

  6. ewj says:

    What made me disillusioned are:

    1. Failures were chalked up to foundation staff incompetence, racism, lack of clarity, lack of flexibility, and purposely holding money back from people who need it. Successes were chalked up to listening to the community, engaging in the race/class discussions, waiting for long term outcomes, and making knowledge transfer more important than money.

    2. Everyone agreed they wanted to see how things played out in the long-term but really judged the work in what happened in the first 6-9 months. When things did not happen fast, it was time for a change.

    It would have been easier to have staff read proposals than to go out and find grantees. It would have been easier to say yes, even when we knew the funds would not be used in the agreed upon manner because it was going to a “needy” community. It would have been easier to not talk/write about our failures and struggles.

    We made mistakes and each time we admitted to a mistake it was seen as compounding error. Therefore, for every three errors we needed 50 successes. After a while, you decide to play it safe or push for the big goal. Pushing for the big goal made the work very stressful. Some people were asked to leave, many left on their own.

    Putting some distance from the work, I am convinced if we would have buried our mistakes (which is not in my nature), the job would have been less stressful. We would have had more time to learn from our mistakes and work with more grantees.

    Foundations have so much potential and are one of the least regulated (especially public foundation) entities with few restrictions. There are many opportunities for transparency and risk taker. The norm is really the opposite.

    A simple first level of transparency is to have direct line phone numbers or email addresses for all staff on the website, most foundations do not do that.

    Another small ideal is to list the foundation’s outcomes (not grantee but foundation) how they are doing on the website.

  7. ewj: Particularly appreciate your comments re: transparency. My organization, the Communications Network, which promotes effectiveness among foundations through more strategic use of communications, is currently developing a set of standards of practice that will include a set of things to increase foundation transparency.

  8. oops…correcting url in post below: Communications Network.

  9. Holden says:

    ewj: what you’re describing sounds emotionally difficult, but just emotionally. I still don’t really get it. In the end, the foundation is still the one with the money; if the complaints are unreasonable, it can publish a “We think these complaints are unreasonable for reasons X, Y and Z” and keep doing what it’s doing. It’s easy for me to see how this dialogue could be frustrating, but hard to see how it actually interferes with your mission.

    It seems like in the very worst-case scenario (the one you describe), you create a lot of poor-quality and useless discussion (although to my mind, in that case you’re learning about how your applicants think, and largely learning to look for new ones). In other scenarios, you learn valuable things. It still seems like on balance, you’re way better off with the transparency, even if it means you’re getting “ripped apart” (by people who can’t actually do anything to you) constantly.

  10. Bari says:

    I am a grad student in a course entitled Foundations of Philanthropy and was researching information for the topic of “50 Things Foundations Should Not Do”. I just chanced on this site through Google and am finding reading your comments very interesting and enlightening.

  11. Thanks Bari, feel free to shoot me an email if you have any questions.

    Your paper sounds very interesting. I’d love to see a copy when you’re done.