COF: The Need for Speed

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 Kathleen Enright, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

When you come to a conference like the Council on Foundations’ conference, you show up with your our own set of expectations.

As I was considering what value I hope to glean from the conference, I was struck by the fact that it occurs not in the context of a changing world but a changed world. Given that Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ exists to help grantmakers work smarter so that nonprofits are stronger and can ultimately deliver better results on the ground, my goal for the meeting is to gain insight into what needs to change for philanthropy to contribute powerfully in this new context.

Chatting with Brad Smith of Foundation Center he observed that “Philanthropy needs to get better at getting to scale at speed.”

At Monday’s lunchtime plenary, Ed DeSeve spoke about the pace at which they’re organizing the delivery of the Recovery Act funds. Mind-blowing.

And Dr. Besser from the CDC talked about the reaction time required to seize the one chance they had to get out in front of the H1N1 virus.

This theme of speed and urgency reminded me of an observation that Ami Dar made when he spoke at the GEO/NFF Money Matters conference. He observed that whenever he’s in foundation offices, he never sees anyone walking quickly. The comment drew laughter from the crowd, but the point is an important one.

I can’t imagine there’s a single office in the Obama administration where the same observation could be made.

It struck me that the current pace of philanthropy is completely out of sync in our changed world.

We need to start asking ourselves what it will take to infuse the kind of urgency in our own work. As it stands, our current modes of operating may get in the way of our ability to play an important role in solving our most pressing problems.

Kathleen Enright is CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.


  1. Tony Pipa says:


    What strikes me is that this sentiment, except for Bill Somerville’s critique, is mostly absent from the debate about effective strategies and their development. What foundations would we describe as nimble? Agile? In which instances is that most effective? How do we emulate that?

    I think we must get better at learning while doing, instead of remaining stuck in planning and gearing up mode while problems move on unattended without us. It probably also requires frank conversations about risk, since part of what takes so long is the impetus to manage and remove risk from potential investments. Scaling up grant programs quickly might mean those investments don’t always work as planned, but the potential upside of being timely could far outweigh it. And certainly internal bureaucratic and decision-making structures need exploding and rethinking. Most foundations that acted quickly after Katrina, for example, adapted their decision-making structures to act accordingly.

    In my experience, I’ve seen foundations perceived to be quick-acting in their early years often become traditional and stodgy in their timelines and infrastructure as they grow in organization and profile. Would be interesting to examine why this is – and what it means in terms of impact.

  2. Sandra Bass says:

    Picking up on something in Tony’s comments. I’m not sure the issue is so much speed as it is flexibility, adaptability, openness, and a willingness to share what doesn’t work as well as what does. Speed in and of itself may not be the highest value without greater attention to these issues and in fact could be harmful in some instances.

  3. Tony, you make a great point by referencing what was possible in philanthropy post-Katrina. Foundations were able to circumvent their own systems in order to make decisions at the pace and with the flexibility that the circumstances required. It could be helpful to think about the current situation in the same context.
    And Sandra, you’re right that adaptability is almost more important than speed. But I’d suggest we could use an increased dosage of both.

    Several members of the GEO community are experimenting with importing design and innovation methodologies into philanthropy. These approaches value openness and adaptability and learning while doing. I’m excited by the possibilities there.