COF: How Many Consultants to Screw in a Light Bulb?

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

By Paul Connolly, TCC Group

How many consultants does it take to screw in a light bulb?  The members of the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers unfortunately did not address that pressing question when it convened on May 3rd at the Council on Foundations conference in Atlanta.  However, they did discuss how foundations are reacting to the recent economic decline.  As advisors to and change agents for a range of funders, consultants have a unique perspective on this topic.  Their collective wisdom is summed up below.

Some foundations are being nimble during this tumultuous period.  They are increasing their pay-out levels, directing funding to "safety net" providers, increasing investments in policy advocacy efforts, awarding more unrestricted general operating support, and building the capacity of grantees to be more financially sustainable.  As they face shrunken endowments, certain family foundation boards are having difficult — and healthy — discussions about the possibility of spending down and closing.

Yet many foundations still seem stuck in fear, uncertain about the future and unwilling to change much.  Now is the time for foundations to take on a greater leadership role and consider new models for philanthropy.  Today, there are many opportunities for funders to take bold action in such critical fields as education, energy, and health.  Moreover, foundations need to be more willing to collaborate, especially to leverage some of the federal government’s new investments.  And learning and evaluation activities are more important than ever, to help determine what works (and what doesn’t work) and inform decisions about how to allocate limited resources.

While many foundation endowments are now two-thirds the size of what they were a year ago, foundations can not afford to be only two-thirds as effective as they once were.  As Rahm Emmanuel observed recently, "a crisis is a terrible thing to waste."  During these challenging times, foundations have a great opportunity to step up, exercise leadership, and embrace new approaches to achieve their missions.

Paul Connolly is Senior Vice President of TCC Group, a 30 year-old management consulting firm that provides planning, evaluation, grants management, and capacity building services to funders.