Audacious Ideas: Jim Canales

This guest post from Jim Canales, CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, is part of the ongoing Audacious Ideas series.

By Jim Canales

5204 Bill and Melinda Gates along with Warren Buffett recently announced their commitment to devote the majority of their wealth to philanthropy. Perhaps more notably, they are encouraging other billionaires to pledge a similar commitment, and a new website,, has been launched to encourage their peers to follow suit and to document these pledges.

This is certainly audacious. And it got me thinking about what similar “pledges” those of us privileged enough to work within organized philanthropy should be thinking about. Obviously, each of our foundations effectively makes a pledge by deciding where to focus our grants, whether on issues of education, health, economic development, the environment or the arts.

But, I’d suggest there are other commitments we should consider related to how we as foundations engage in our work in addition to what we do with our resources. The big-dollar pledges that foundations can make are certainly compelling, but the ways in which we engage with our grantees deserve as much attention as what we fund. Our ability to create positive social impact through our grantmaking is directly related to our capacity to be effective and thoughtful partners with the organizations we are privileged to support.

Much has been written about the tenuous nature of a grantor-grantee relationship and how it is influenced by the inherent power differential and complexity. Let’s lean into that complexity and commit to specific actions that can deepen these relationships, and enhance trust in ways that will further our collective social impact.

So, with a focus on how we might improve and enhance that working relationship, my audacious idea is to suggest—even implore—foundations to make commitments that address the following:

Transparency: What specific action or actions will your foundation take to increase its openness and render its processes and approaches less opaque and more transparent?

Accountability: To what specific measures should your grantee partners hold the foundation accountable, and what will be the foundation’s mechanism for reporting publicly on your progress?

Authenticity: What specific steps will your foundation take to enhance its relations with grantees and grantseekers and create greater authenticity in them, rooted in respect for our partners? What mechanisms will you put in place to ensure that you are listening and learning from your grantees as much as you expect them to listen and learn from your foundation?

If the largest 250 foundations in this country agreed to even one tangible, specific and measureable improvement in one of these areas each year, the quality of our relationships with our partners could be improved significantly, and the power differential that often impedes an effective working relationship could be reduced greatly.

At the Irvine Foundation, we have tried hard to uphold our commitments to transparency, accountability and authenticity, but we are under no illusion that our work is done. We are committed to finding additional authentic mechanisms to listen and learn from our grantees. Our next opportunity will be later this year, when we receive the results of our Grantee Perception Report. As we have done in the past, and as others now do routinely, we will post the results of that report on our website, along with a letter describing what we have learned from our grantees and how that will influence our practices going forward.

Some might rightly question how audacious it really is to commit to principles that ought to be at the heart of exercising effective philanthropy. I agree. But, as a field, we have much more progress to make in this regard, and I know that improving the nature and authenticity of our relationships with grantees can be one of the most effective ways we can enhance our capacity to create positive social impact. With that authenticity, grantees are more likely to be honest about the challenges and risks in their work, and grantees and grantmakers are more likely to forge effective strategies to overcome those challenges. Without such authentic relationships, we are far less likely to have the kind of impact that our missions articulate and our communities deserve.

Has the time come for a more visible and cohesive movement in organized philanthropy to express our collective commitment to principles of transparency, accountability and authenticity? If not now, when?


  1. Terri Forman says:

    Dear Jim,

    I applaud the commitments your recommend and add one other–partnership. Just as the grantees need the financial investment of the grantmakers, the grantmakers need the grantees to manage their investments for the optimum return in people’s lives improved, communities made more sustainable, arts more innovative, science more effective, and so on. Rather than it being a matter of where the power lies, there should be recognition that each needs the other to be successful–a true values exchange.

    This brings all parties to the table with mutual respect, a willingness to listen to how to truly be effective, and ongoing communications throughout the funding process and during the lifetime of the grant–perhaps beyond that if the grantee can be a resource to the grantmaker and become part of its braintrust to help and advise on its mission fulfillment going forward.

    This would truly balance the equation and encourage best thinking, dynamic engagement and creativity, rather than conforming and compromise.

    Terri Forman, CFRE

  2. Jim Canales says:

    Thank you for taking time to offer a comment, Terri. Your suggestion about partnerships is right on target. The challenge before us is how we can go about creating the conditions that foster such authentic and mutually supportive partnerships. We’d all benefit from strategies and approaches used successfully by either grantmakers or grantees. Thanks.

  3. Geri Stengel says:

    A couple of weeks ago I attended the Social Impact Exchange conference on scaling ( Based on insight from the conference, I would add to your list take the “lead investor” role. In the for profit world, the venture capital company that originates and structures a syndicated deal is called the lead investor. A foundation that spots a promising nonprofit could play a similar lead role and introduce the nonprofit to other funders.