Theses About Foundations

This is a guest post by Albert Ruesga, CEO of the Greater New Orleans Foundation. It is a shorter version of a post he wrote for his personal blog. You can read the full post here.

By Albert Ruesga

Albert Ruesga…with apologies to Martin Luther:

  1. The foundation world is filled with many people of good will who desire through their work to advance the common good. Many have in fact succeeded.
  2. Taken together, however, the collective actions of foundations have failed to address, in any significant way, some of the most basic injustices in our society. After decades of work, foundations have failed to alter the basic condition of the poor in the United States.
  3. With few exceptions, if we were to examine the histories of some of the great social advances in our country—the winning of women’s suffrage, the ending of Jim Crow—we’d see that foundations had played a minor role at best. In spite of the resources, independence, and power available to them, the effect of foundations on the common good has been embarrassingly marginal. The claim that organized philanthropy is more effective than simple charity needs to be challenged and may be, as some have claimed, largely a fiction.
  4. Foundations and their staffs often lack a sense of urgency about the challenges facing marginalized communities.
  5. Unlike academic disciplines, foundation work lacks a tradition of vigorous debate and self-criticism. Because of this, our most bone-headed beliefs and practices go unchallenged. This is one of the great failings of our field.
  6. Just as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined profession is not worth pursuing.  But most of us who work at foundations—especially those of us who lead foundations—fail to ask the most fundamental questions about our work: What does human flourishing look like? What is my vision of the Good? What’s our responsibility to one another in a complex, industrial society? How much suffering at "the bottom" should a community tolerate if the overall statistics look pretty good? What is the role of a foundation in society? etc.
  7. The positive aspects of foundation culture are significant. These include an immense pool of talent, a commitment to those who are least well off, a respect for the work of nonprofit leaders, and a desire to make a positive difference in the world. There have been and there continue to be many "great souls" in the world of organized philanthropy.
  8. The negative aspects of foundation culture are also significant and tend to go largely unaddressed. These negative aspects include the following:

      Foundations are generally averse to collaboration, even though collaboration is essential for making progress on difficult issues such as poverty, universal access to quality health care, etc. There are a number of reasons for this aversion, including the desire to claim bragging rights for this or that piece of work. In the United States, this one failing perhaps above all others has had enormous negative repercussions for people in low-income communities.

      Foundations are notoriously risk averse. The psychology of this phenomenon was brilliantly explored by Joel Orosz in his book Effective Foundation Management: 14 Challenges of Philanthropic Leadership—And How to Outfox Them.

      Foundations and their staffs are subject to the same forces that beguile us all: consumerism, careerism, a lack of media literacy, etc.

      Foundations frequently fall prey to the Cult of the New.

  9. Because those of us who work at foundations are largely unaware of the history of our field, we frequently reinvent the wheel. We pay far too little heed to what has already been attempted, and to whether and why it has succeeded or failed. This in spite of the fact that there are resources available to help us overcome our professional amnesia.
  10. Evaluation is our friend, not our enemy. Unfortunately, it’s often used as a blunt weapon against grantees. Worries about evaluation have become the math anxiety of philanthropy.
  11. We must also be careful to avoid the Gadgets Heresy: the idea that new tools—new social media sites, B corporations, more "efficient markets," etc.—will save us from ourselves. Our greatest progress will come not from chasing the latest Shiny New Object, but from attending to the field’s moral and intellectual failings.
  12. The social entrepreneurship movement is important and worthy of support. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that there is important work a civilized people must do that will forever require subsidy either through public tax dollars or private donations. If it really were possible for a business-minded individual to turn a profit by providing health care to the penniless, it would have happened long ago. The not-for-profit status of organizations that provide services to the indigent reflects not a failure of entrepreneurial imagination or will, but rather a sober assessment of what people value enough to pay for freely.
  13. Philanthropy is and should be primarily a moral rather than a technocratic tradition. This doesn’t absolve foundation professionals from using all the knowledge and resources available to them to make their grantmaking better along every possible dimension—spiritual, technical, and otherwise.
  14. There is currently a great battle on for the soul of philanthropy.  We oppose "technocrats" to "social justice grantmakers," "liberals" to "conservatives."  But these are skirmishes on the edge of a larger battle about the role each of us will play in either contributing to or subtracting from the common good.  What will future generations say about us, about our engagement as citizens, our stewardship of the planet, our ability to defend the common good against the ravages of narrow interests?  I believe my own ears would burn with shame.  We’ve left future generations one hell of a mess.
  15. Insert your own thesis in the comments below.


  1. I was once included in a focus group intended to draw feedback about the 75 year history of a big foundation. Out of 10 a couple were board members, a couple were grantees. I had received grants in the past but was not funded in the couple of years prior to being invited to be on the focus group.

    In one set of questions asking about how innovative the foundation was, I turned to a business leader next to me and said “If you’d been given $100 million and 75 years to solve a problem, and the problem persisted, would you still have your job.?”

    I was told that this was an unfair assessment. That the foundation had done many innovative things.

    However, I think this article by Mr. Ruesga supports what I had suggested.

  2. I loved Albert’s theses. I especially liked the observation about “social entrepreneurship.” As long as we tolerate the level of economic inequality that we do, there are going to be a lot of people who can’t pay the cost of very basic things they need.

  3. William Bloomfield says:

    I agree with the above, based on my own research. My thesis, actually my dissertation, was about how foundations make decisions.*

    Mr. Ruesga is on-target in terms of philanthropic culture, risk avoidance, evaluation, innovation, recognition of prior work, and going after serious unmet needs over time, etc., which is really unfortunate and ultimately a waste of resources.

    Of course, talking about it out-loud about these things is the third-rail of philanthropy. Grantees are terrified of saying anything that might offend and the insiders are pretty happy with the way things are. By the way, you won’t find many (if any other) dissertations on the issue I examined for that reason.

    * Title is: “Grantmaking Foundations in America: Analyzing the Process and Practice of Philanthropic Decision-Making” 2002, Heller School, Brandeis University

  4. Pete Holzmann says:

    Much of this was inadvertently proven at the Gathering tech briefing and Angel Grants experiment in 1999.

    Funny it comes up again now. We are preparing a followon survey on evaluation models, successes and challenges… As a precursor to developing an expanded model… Love to see what else emerges!

  5. Thanks for the comments, and the new references. I wish the kind of dialogue that Sean’s blog is able to generate were the norm for our field. It’s absent from most conferences I’ve attended, ruled as they by a regard for consensus and bonhomie. These are typically good things, but politeness might on some occasions keep us from commenting on the rat that’s scurrying across the floor with a human hand in its mouth (to borrow a a rather gruesome figure from another blogger and friend). I am guilty of this kind of silence. I hope that organizations like EPIP and others, and that all of us as mentors, can avoid cloning ourselves in the next generation of professional philanthropists and can help create a boisterous new cadre of foundation leaders, program officers, and donors impatient for change.

  6. Ani Hurwitz says:

    The hubris of Mr. Ruesga is astonishing and his expectations of foundations naive in the extreme. For a contrary view–one that i believe is grounded in reality–i recommend a newsletter article, Defining Philanthropy Down, written by Jon Horak, chair of the nonprofit practice group at a Connecticut law firm. You can find it at

  7. Ani, the longer a time you spend in the foundation world, the less astonishing my hubris will appear to you. I read the link you recommended and know Claire Gaudiani’s work from way back (in the 1990s, we worked together on a project to promote philanthropy in the United States). I’m a sympathetic reader, but yet I fail to see how the references you cite present a “contrary view.” My views are presented to spark discussion and debate, so I’m glad to engage in that debate with you. We don’t need to debate my less-than-stellar moral qualities (my hubris, etc.): we’ll take these as given. What theses, specifically, do you wish to disagree with and on what basis? I’ve had only a very limited view of the foundation world (having worked at two community foundations and one private foundation). What has your experience been?

  8. Geri Stengel says:

    Very perceptive, very depressing. In defense of foundations, I will say that social problems may still exist not just because foundations are flawed but because the social/cultural/economic environment has continued to decay. From the for-profit hospital to the deregulated banking sector, support and service to the low-and middle-income have declined.

    That said, I agree that a more flexible, open, bottom-up (ask what they need, don’t tell them) approach to social problems is needed. As is collaboration. To quote, I think, Ronald Reagan, “You can accomplish much if you don’t care who gets the credit.”