An Evacuation of the Ivory Towers

Today One Post Challenge entry comes from Trista Harris, a Program Officer and the voice behind, a blog about next generation philanthropy issues.

By Trista Harris

Today I am proposing nothing short of a revolution in the philanthropic field. What if foundations were connected to the communities that they were serving; innovation and creativity were encouraged; knowledge was shared within organizations and with the larger philanthropic and nonprofit sectors; and foundations were measured on the results of their investments, not just amount of money spent or number of staff? I know you are probably asking yourselves right now, “what kind of crazy alternative universe are you living in Trista Harris?”

I should probably back up. Any time you are proposing a revolution, it’s important to give proper background or else you scare people off. The philanthropic landscape is changing. Baby Boomers are beginning to retire or re-imagine their positions. Donors are more actively engaged and want measurable results, and the government is spending a lot of time and energy trying to reign in the philanthropic sector. Professional philanthropic staff are trying to figure out how to do more with less time. How do we re-invigorate our troops of professional do-gooders to make sure that are connected to the communities that they serve and have the capacity to move the philanthropic sector from potential to results?

As a life long staff member of nonprofits, I always cringe when someone, usually a board member, says “if you just applied business principals to your work, all your problems would be solved.” But, I think I have found an idea from the for-profit sector that could solve a variety of our sector’s ills. Flexible work schedules and telecommuting have become commonplace in many for-profit organizations, but a Minnesota company has taken flexibility to the next level with the results-only work environment. Best Buy, an electronics retailer, has given its employees full control of how, when, and where they work. A guiding premise is that “work is something you do, not somewhere you go.” This means that employees take conference calls while fishing and start project planning after their kids go to bed. This new model has decreased turnover but, more important to our conversation, has improved productivity by 35%.

What if Program Officers suddenly became office-less? What if we spent our time in the communities that we serve, rather than in a stuffy conference room talking about the community? Would this change force us to create knowledge management systems to connect this out-based workforce? Would that system then institutionalize the wisdom that is currently only available inside of an “about to retire” program officer’s head? How much more effective could our work be? Flexibility breeds innovation and it encourages collaboration outside of the “usual suspects.” The people that probably have the best insight about the need for a new community center are the moms and dads that are at a nearby playground during the day. That’s not who most Program Officers are rubbing shoulders with at 11am.

When people are measured by what they accomplish, not how much time they are at their desks, the rules change. Suddenly the star employee isn’t the one who arrives at 6am and leaves at 6pm, it is the one who is most knowledgeable about community solutions and has the most positive effect on their program area. How different would the sector be if we were all working at full capacity and still had time to be a good parent and an engaged community member?

I am proposing a revolution. So let me know, are you in or are you out?


  1. Maya Norton says:


    I love this idea and frankly, am grateful to hear it. As someone who is a self-starter, high performer, and extremely motivated, the binds of the office chafe because of all the “extras” that are required in the work day.

    Although I wonder at the implications for the community and for the culture of an organization that does not have a central address, I love the idea of thinking about how to reposition the office in the sociocultural landscape of nonprofit needs for a results orientation.

    I will definitely be thinking about this idea further and looking forward to others’ comments.

    Maya Norton
    The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

  2. I’m in! I manage an anti-racism program at a Foundation. And a lot of my job is to get people to talk about racism. Flexibility would definitely help me get out into the community more. And I am a Gen-Xer, so of course I love the idea.

  3. A co-worker shared the following comment with me and I thought it was so well-thought out and included an important environmental impact piece that was missing from my initial posts. So here it is:


    Your article was a great read for me especially and certainly had to respond. It?s very interesting the model that you created in aligning the employee?s productive hours with the organization?s mission. I hope this will be an insightful article for the world of Philanthropy.

    ?Virtual? work and subsequent management by results has existed since time in memorial, students and home work for example – Professors assigned homework and only needed to see completed assignment! I agree productivity can increase exponentially as a result of flexing employee time.

    I?d like to share with you more on this topic: I was involved in a team-project supporting and preparing the employees-gone-?virtual?

    Three Major speed Bumps

    1. Resistance from managers: ?I can?t manage people I can?t see?

    2. Resistance from workers ?When I?m not there no one thinks about me?.

    3. ?Virtual? work almost always requires major changes in technology and business processes


    1. Legitimate concern

    2. Managers fear of loss of control, require change of mindset – can no longer manage by walking around

    3. Think thorough how to support the virtual worker.

    a. Various technologies are now available to support the virtual worker and knowledge management

    b. Organization cultural change? Big time!

    4. Communicate: What?s in it for me?

    5. Legal issues: e.g., OSHA etc

    A few other companies? that have implemented this method of work and their projected outcome (for the virtual-worker going green!):

    1. Business Travel (National Environment Policy Institute)

    a. Goal: 10% of travelers off the road, one day a week

    b. Avoid driving 24.4 million miles

    c. Produce 12,963 tons less CO2

    d. Save 1.2 million gallons of fuel per week

    2. Sun Microsystems (350 person work center)

    a. 5600 hours of extra time (50% of which typically goes back to the community)

    b. $70,000 in transportation cost savings

    c. 700 tons of CO2 not produced

    ?and the list goes on

    Your article is a great read for anyone and more so for the organizations? that are thinking cost reduction, increasing productivity, employee satisfaction, workers retention…


  4. Brian P says:

    Love the idea – particularly as it encourages closer work WITH the community (Community Organizing 101 – people decide what’s in their best interest and act upon it vs. the “professional” organizer – as the latter is a slippery slope towards potentially oppressive behaviors). Think this model would not only support the above – but also promote further inclusive decision making as foundation staff develop a better feel for the “true” pulse of the community vs. those that appear through written proposals, site visits and the “stuffy conference room talks about the community” (liked the wording of that Trista – as it’s just that – talk ABOUT the community vs. WITH the community).

    Lastly – think this method cultivates potential donor base as community members SEE foundation staff and become more familiar with their functions & service to the community(not sure the general public always has a good/accurate perception of foundations/grant making institutions and how they impact our neighborhoods).

  5. Reminds me of the time my ex-foundation boss and I were at Harvard for a review of a case study by the business school about the foundation’s major transformation to a new way of doing business.

    Case study revealed how hard it was to turn around a tradition-bound organization (and especially the staff) that had gotten a bit too comfortable doing things the same way over and over and over again.

    During the Q and A, one of the students asked: “If foundations are so resistant to innovation, why would someone like myself who has just spent the last several years learning about the importance of innovating in order to stay in business ever want to work for a foundation?”

    My boss answered: “We need people like you, who bring those ideas and new attitudes so we can change our cultures.”

  6. Maya,
    I worry about the office culture piece too but I have realized that some of my most important work relationships are cultivated during non-work time (e.g. lunch with co-workers, walking breaks during the day, and office celebrations), these are all things that don’t necessarily need to disappear with a more flexible workplace. We might actually have more time for these things.

  7. Trista – your sooOOOO ON – I posted a question on the the Chronicle of Philanthropy website, you might like. The following is the Q&A and web address:

    ErnestO: Why do the people running foundations feel they have so much they can teach the people in the trenches?

    Joel Fleishman:
    I think it’s because most people who work in foundations have strong mission commitments to helping those who need help in the areas with which their foundations work. In other words, their hearts are in the right place, and they want to do the right thing, but too often they don’t listen enough to the people whom they are trying to help.

  8. Jasmine Hall Ratliff says:

    Trista I love this!! I am in full agreement. Our new vice president has begun steps towards getting Program Officers out of the office and more ‘in the field’ so we can learn more about the communities we serve. What are your thoughts about getting ‘other’ Foundation staff out and about? Such as grants managers and people not specific to Programs? On occassion we will bring a Grants Manager with us and they usually really enjoy it, but they only go when invited. Should they start heading out on their own?

  9. Jasmine,
    Great point. The Ford Foundation has a neighborhood grant program that is run by non-program staff to give them experience with the grantmaking part of the organization. I wonder how much more cohesive the organization culture of foundations would be if more staff had the opportunity to participate in the grantmaking side.

  10. Trista, in the 1980’s, there was a popular concept called Management By Walking Around. The idea was that managers could do a much better job if they got out of their corporate office and actually interacted with their employees.

    It seems to me that your call for revolution rests on the same idea, that interaction trumps intellectual planning. Both are needed, but as other readers have said, I love your concept.

  11. Trista,
    In addition to getting program officers out of the office, I want to call attention to one other “revolutionary” idea you mentioned: Foundations that measure on the results of their investments rather than by money spent. This one is near to my own experience and is
    something that we’re starting to see evidence of throughout the sector. The organization I work for(United Way of Massachusetts Bay & Merrimack Valley) just went through a major strategy shift that changes the way we invest in our partner agencies. Instead of investing based on historical relationships, the new strategy identifies community goals and ties our operating support to the achievement of specific milestones towards those goals. We’re seeing similar changes in other United Ways across the country. It can be rough transition, we had to make some difficult decisions that affected good, quality agencies that just weren’t in the position to help us reach our community goals, but I really believe it was the right thing for our organization to do for the sake of driving substantial long-term progress for our region. It’s good to hear others calling for such strategic changes. Thanks!

  12. Erica says:

    I find it interesting that this debate is happening within the philanthropic community because for a while it has been raging within the union community as well. There is a constant tension between “business unionism”, with a focus on servicing your members (i.e. processing grievances, and maintaining what you have) and “social unionism” which entails reaching out to workers in their communities, actively organizing, and building bridges with community groups (foundations, churches, etc.).

    Although I certainly am in favor of measuring output versus face time, and getting out of the office on a regular basis, I have concerns that quality-of-life issues cut both ways. On the one hand, it is nice to schedule work around family activities and the like. On the other hand, it seems that the lines between work and private life are increasingly blurring. When and how can we actually completely extricate ourselves from work in the age of the Crackberry? Are we really better off checking emails in the bleachers of our children’s soccer games?

    Rethinking how and where we work can have incredible benefits, especially for women with small children, but at the same time it creates new challenges for work-life balance which we must take into consideration as well.

  13. David Noble says:

    While I’m not qualified to comment on specific applicability to philanthropic organizations, I can vouch for the general potential of this approach. I’ve seen many technology companies starting up without physical offices. Personally, I’ve worked for software companies from home for over 8 years. A few were fully office-less, and a couple just didn’t have any offices in my location. Collaboration tools and infrastructure like wikis, mailing lists, and even databases are available for very low cost. Large and successful open source software projects like Linux and OpenOffice have been developed without many of its primary contributors meeting in person. There are plenty of precedents out there.

    Going office-less requires adopting new patterns of behavior to be effective. This can also be a great opportunity to take a “zero-based” look at aligning the organization’s processes with its goals. It can also result in a more durable “corporate memory”. Information stored in electronic documents and messages survives even after its contributors move on. The same can’t be said for conversations around a water cooler, or even most conversations around a meeting table.

  14. Patrick Cokley says:


    This is very much on the ball with some of the newer innovations in the leadership field. The concepts of grassroots community action to affect change is one of the best means for dnew development and utilization of resources. In my role at the Institute for Educatiohnal Leadership we were part of a larger project founded by the Kellogg FOundation to do just that in communities across the country. (One was hosted by Migizi in Minneapolist, and another you may find of interest is the Llano Grande Center in South Texas.

    This new way of thingking dramatically changed their communites and offerd quantitative as well as qualitative data on its success. I think it is time to rally the troops and change our ideas of leadership and what it means to effectiveley manage change.

  15. I’m in! At my last job at a nonprofit, they were actually quite understanding about flexible schedules and such. It was refreshing!

  16. Katy Friesz says:

    Trista, I’m in. A relative newbie to the foundation world, though very familiar with nonprofits, I have to say, I’ve been fairly encouraged by the flexibility and technological support my employers have offered. I agree with your point and many of the other comments – philanthropy cannot leverage its propensity for social change without the authentic engagement of the people and communities it serves. Grantmaking without engagement is often ineffective and borderline irresponsible. The best (and, arguably, only) path to engagement may be an “evacuation of the ivory towers” – though, I’m hoping the future holds destruction of said towers. Thanks for raising an important topic.

  17. Vickie Allen says:

    This is a fantastic idea and I am thrilled that you have taken the initiative to address the issues that so often get ignored.

    Count me in as one of your fans and long time supporters.