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
…with apologies to Martin Luther:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Foundations and their staffs often lack a sense of urgency about the challenges facing marginalized communities.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Insert your own thesis in the comments below.