My Take on Foundations and the Media

Lots of buzz after the Philanthropy Media Panel on why foundations do not get more press attention. I think the core reason that foundations do not get much press is because most people think that giving money away is easy.

Doing something easy doesn’t garner press attention. And it shouldn’t. But the fact is opening a business or making an investment is easy too. But they are both hard to do well and practicing philanthropy well is just as hard.

Foundations themselves haven’t done themselves many favors in reversing this mindset. Most foundation PR touts all the great grants they’ve made and reading their annual reports and press releases gives the impression that everything they do works. If that were true, then we’d know that philanthropy was easy. But grants fail all the time. Especially if you benchmark a grant against the good that could be done by just randomly picking a nonprofit and giving it money.

For-profit business PR is all positive, glowing remarks as well. But as outsiders we see companies close or fail to thrive all the time and so we know it is a tough job. But foundations can make low impact grants forever and never have to close their doors or even produce any outward signs of their lack of impact.

This is why it is so important that as a field we talk about failure and why I’ve celebrated the Irvine Foundation’s Jim Canales and Hewlett’s frank assessments of some of their work. It is also why I’ve championed information sharing between philanthropists and why I’ll be writing in the near future about an excellent example of beneficial information sharing regarding a failed grant.

Philanthropy is hard. Really hard. Saving the environment, eradicating poverty, improving education? These are things that would make anyone’s list of the hardest possible endeavors that face humankind.

The media covers for-profit investors when they make great investments and when they fail miserably. Without the possibility of failing miserable, there is no such thing as a great investment.

Philanthropy is free to act without constraint in so many ways. This is both our field’s greats asset and biggest curse. It lets us try things even if they are unpopular without fear of retribution should we fail. But being allowed to fail over and over without being called out means there are no real incentives to make us get better.

Philanthropy is hard. There are people and foundations doing great work and some that are throwing money away. If we want or expect the media and the public at large to celebrate and appreciate the great work of foundations and individual donors we must accept that being honest about failure and getting publicly trashed for it is part of the bargain.


  1. True enough, Sean…
    Building on your comment that giving money away is hard, it’s worth a listen to an NPR piece that ran this morning that features several foundation folk offering cautionary advice to the Obama administration, which faces the task of giving away lots of money quickly — and a job they want to do well. Best sound bite is from Pittsburgh Foundation President Grant Oliphant: “The whole idea that the government could have given away $350 billion to the banks without setting clear expectations for how that money would be used boggles the mind for those of us who work in philanthropy.”

    You can hear a replay here:

  2. Here is my take on why foundations don’t media coverage is that there is no competitive marketplace for them, with respect to a real monetized gain. Businesses employ and distribute releases about their giving because it positively positions them in the marketplace and affects brand positioning and awareness and we know what that can mean for them.

    I am not sure I agree with you about the ‘giving away money is hard or is easy’. I always say that giving money away is the easiest part of philanthropy. It’s how it’s done, the process, that is hard. I don’t think the press cares or even thinks that at all because they don’t know. Unless folks have been on the grantmaking side, they don’t know what’s truly involved. And it makes philanthropy look like an easy and we all feel good about it.

    Few private foundations, with the exception of large private foundations, rarely if at all have a pr/marekting professional on staff or think pr is important. I don’t think they think about it, and perhaps more information, education is what it may take to change a mindset or way of ‘we’ve been doing it this way forever.’ Correct me if I am wrong, but those larger private foundations had a tie to a large company so there is somewhat of an investment for them to get pr coverage. Corporate foundations on the other hand do a fairly decent job of getting media coverage, because there is a direct investment to do that. All around, coverage could be better for any type of foundation.

    I think the advantage of integrating pr is bottom-line driven for those that have a gain. Those that have a stake to promote do, those that don’t, don’t. Beyond that it’s education for the ‘Why’ to all others.