Discussing Hewlett President Selection: Presumptuous?

I’ve gotten lots of fascinating suggestions from readers of potential candidates to replace Paul Brest at the Hewlett Foundation. But first I want to discuss some pushback I’ve been getting from people who believe we shouldn’t even be having this discussion (to be clear, I’ve received no such complaints from anyone at the Hewlett Foundation).

The Hewlett Foundation is a private foundation whose board has sole and absolute authority to select their next president. But they are also an organization that seeks to exert influence on the public good and actively seeks to engage with the public. I see absolutely nothing wrong with having a public discussion about the decisions that Hewlett, or any large foundation, makes or contemplates making. These sorts of discussions happen all the time in regards to large for-profit companies. In both the for-profit and nonprofit case, the boards have authority to make the decisions they see fit and the public has the right to express any opinions they might have.

That being said, the emails I’ve gotten from very senior members of the philanthropic community – people whose opinions I respect very much – suggest that my hosting this discussion is far more controversial than I might have guessed. I intend no disrespect to the Hewlett board. I do not believe that anyone other than the board has or should have any vote on the matters of the Hewlett Foundation. I do not presume that my opinions or the opinions of my readers are any more valid than anyone else’s. I readily admit that my goal – advancing the field of philanthropy – overlaps with only a portion of the Hewlett Foundation’s mission.

But there is nothing wrong with the public, stakeholders in the common good over which the Hewlett Foundation and all large foundations seek to exert influence, holding discussions and expressing opinions on the actions of these foundations.

Why am I hosting this discussion? Because I, and every reader of this blog, have a vested interest in the development of the field of philanthropy. The Hewlett Foundation has been the most influential foundation exerting influence over the development of our field under the leadership of Paul Brest. With Paul announcing he is stepping down, I care a lot about who replaces him. Do I have any say in the matter or should I have one? No. But the public has every right to discuss those things which effect us. This is a bedrock principal of a vibrant public commons and the field of philanthropy does itself a disservice if it seeks in any way to limit public discourse about the development of the field.

The majority of the comments I’ve received about this discussion have been very positive. Of the negative ones that suggested I was breaching some kind of taboo, most were framed as not so much a complaint from the author but a warning that the discussion would be frowned upon by others.

Maybe I am breaking some unwritten rule that the decisions of foundations boards should not be discussed in public. But if that is in fact an unwritten rule, it is one I feel completely at ease breaking. I see no ethical prohibition on members of the public debating the decisions of foundations boards. I also will defend completely the right of private foundations to make whatever decisions their boards’ see fit.

Philanthropy Daily Digest 09/13/2011

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The Hewlett Foundation’s Next President

Last week I wrote about Paul Brest retiring as the president of the Hewlett Foundation and why I think he has played such an important role. Since then I’ve heard lots of off the record ideas from people in the field about who the Hewlett Foundation board should name to replace Paul. So I thought we should let the guessing games go public. Why? Because I think the Hewlett Foundation should pick not just the person that the Foundation needs right now, but the person who is needed by the field of philanthropy.

Even though Hewlett’s philanthropy program is their smallest grantmaking area, it has been highly influential within the growing philanthropy “industry”. Only the relatively new Gates Foundation philanthropy program (outlined in a guest post on Tactical Philanthropy here) really compares and its impact has yet to be seen; although the program’s indirect connection to the Giving Pledge makes it instantly relevant.

We are at a time in philanthropy where most everyone within the field of philanthropy recognizes the importance of focusing on the practice of philanthropy, but very few people know exactly what that practice should look like. For instance, the Center of Effective Philanthropy has found that while most all foundation CEOs say they seek to be strategic, most foundations do not display even the most rudimentary elements of strategic behavior. At the same time, individual donors, who as a group give 10 times what organized foundations give each year, are beginning to pay more and more attention to the concept of results based philanthropy.

I believe that the Second Great Wave of Philanthropy is a long, multi-decade event and talk of a “revolution” going on in philanthropy is correct in characterization, but implies a speed of change that is simply not occurring. However, it also seems to me that we may be close to a kind of tipping point when it comes to the practice of results based giving.

What the field of philanthropy needs at just this moment is a leading figure backed by a significant grants budget to step up and help to accelerate the mainstreaming of results based giving. The Hewlett Foundation is well positioned to name a successor to Paul who can fill this role. But in order for this to occur, the board will need to recognize the importance of picking an individual that fits the needs of the field at this moment in time, not just someone who meets Hewlett’s internal needs.

What might this person look like?

  • They will need to be an extroverted, media friendly spokesperson for the field, not just someone who can execute internally.
  • They will need to understand the role of “soft power” and their ability (as well as limitations) to influence the world around them in ways that go beyond their grantmaking.
  • They will need to be a convener, a community leader, a “storyteller in chief”.
  • They will need to understand the historical importance of the moment in which philanthropy finds itself. In the midst of a Great Recession, a century after the rise of the Carnegie-Rockefeller industrialist philanthropists, as a significant number of the nation’s wealthiest citizens come together and commit to give away a majority of their wealth, the next leader of Hewlett will need to understand that they have an opportunity to nudge our field in ways that may have a profound influence in how the future history of philanthropy unfolds.

So who should they choose? Who might fit this rather large set of expectations?

Leave a comment with your thought or send me a private email with your thoughts. Any emails will be treated as off the record except I may include the name of any suggested successor in an upcoming list of potential candidates. However, I will keep private the name of anyone who emails me a suggestion.

Philanthropy Daily Digest 09/09/2011

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Philanthropy Daily Digest 09/08/2011

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Balancing the Humanistic and Technocratic in Philanthropy

This is a guest post by Paul Connolly who is Chief Client Services Officer at TCC Group, a national management consulting firm that provides strategy, evaluation, and capacity-building services to funders, nonprofits, and corporate citizenship programs.

By Paul Connolly

A technocratic approach to philanthropy has become more common over the past 15 years and brought many benefits. It typically involves experts applying business and social-science principles to help funders devise focused goals and strategies, measure results rigorously, and work closely with grantees to improve performance. This disciplined course has enabled many funders—including the Edna McConnell Clark, Hewlett, Robin Hood, Broad, and Wallace foundations—to amplify their impact.

Yet despite the best intentions, technocracy can sometimes become too much of a good thing, especially when grantmakers neglect to articulate their underlying beliefs, act as if they are smarter than they are, treat nonprofits as mere vendors, and care only whether, rather than why, a program works.

Since its much-touted creation several years ago, for example, the philanthropic arm of Google has been rather arrogant and unsuccessful, mostly creating solutions that were looking for problems. Likewise, the Northwest Area Foundation recently admitted that it had been too prescriptive and fallen short when it devoted more than $200-million to reduce poverty in an eight-state region over a decade. Such bad news can taint the entire technocratic methodology, but its many positive attributes should not be discarded altogether.

The field is divided about which course is best. Certain technocrats accuse some foundations of following a “spray and pray” approach that is based on “magical thinking” and leads to the squandering of money. Conversely, others complain about a “philanthro-industrial complex” and patronizingly dismiss “due diligence,” “theory of change,” and “social return on investment” as the empty jargon of soulless business experts and performance evaluation as an “obsessive measurement disorder.”

By focusing on two extreme points on the spectrum, this narrow-minded debate implies that they are mutually exclusive when they need not be. Funders fall along a continuum: At one end are humanists—who tend to have altruistic beliefs, adopt a responsive and intuitive grantmaking style, avoid intervening with grantees much, and use qualitative evaluation primarily for learning — and technocrats are at the other. Most are somewhere in the middle and shift over time. Neither approach has cornered the market on making philanthropy more innovative or effective. In fact, the dynamic ying yang-style tension between them is rich territory that has not been fully mined.

Philanthropy must heed a growing body of research across the neuroscience, psychology, and behavioral economics fields that confirm the importance of synthesizing logic and instinct, head and heart, linearity and serendipity. Grantmakers can enhance their work by combining objectivity with passion, control with agility, proactivity with responsiveness, top-down with bottom-up, and numbers with stories. The Skillman Foundation, for instance, is guided not only by a clear theory of change but by a powerful code of ethics and values, too. It supports proven approaches to enhancing schools in six Detroit neighborhoods, but also reserves some money for strategic opportunities that arise. Additional funders that demonstrate this ambidexterity include the Cleveland, Heron, Irvine, Mary Reynolds Babcock, NoVo, Packard, and Rockefeller Brothers foundations.

How can other philanthropies put this hybrid model into practice? Leaders must instill it in the foundation’s organizational culture and champion moderation and balance. Over the past decade, the California Wellness Foundation deliberately shifted from a highly structured, top-down approach involving large retrospective evaluations to a more flexible course entailing unrestricted general operating support to frontline preventive health providers and ongoing learning. The pendulum has recently swung the other way at the Ford Foundation, from a decentralized mode that emphasized the craft of grantmaking to streamlined program strategies and operations and new systems to measure return on investment.

Foundation executives can achieve the right balance by hiring staff members who possess sound judgment and a blend of hard and soft skills. The best philanthropic leaders are not only analytical, objective, and expert, but also self-aware, respectful, and intuitive—and can adjust the mix when needed. They understand, for example, that even if a seasoned nonprofit leader has not explicitly depicted a program logic model, he or she may have an excellent implicit strategy based on deep experience and wisdom. Funders cannot afford to leave their humanity outside the workplace. They must lead with an open heart, exercise humility, pay attention to their gut, and attend to relationships with authenticity and compassion. They also should compensate for their own inclinations — humanists should seek those who are skilled at strategy and performance measurement, and technocrats must be cautious about attracting people who are book-smart but lack emotional intelligence.

To stretch themselves, more humanistic funders can ponder such questions as:

  • “How can we incorporate more dispassionate analysis into our work without losing too much of the joy and caring?”
  • “Are there times when we delegate too much to a grantee so that our own knowledge is not tapped sufficiently and the nonprofit is not accountable enough for its performance?”

    More technocratic philanthropies can consider questions like:

  • “When would it be beneficial to be less directive and more flexible, opportunistic, and patient with grantees?”
  • “Are there more opportunities to improvise and make intuitive leaps of faith?”

    To advance as a field, more oxymoronic thinking and action is required – including rigorous values, poignant data, strategic intuition, deliberate improvisation, soulful strategy, rational exuberance, and immeasurable outcomes.

    If you’d like to learn more about this topic, sign up for an October 6 Foundation Review hosted webinar titled Grantmaking from the Head and Heart, with Paul Connolly, Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation, Carol Gross of the Skillman Foundation and Gayle Williams of the Babcock Foundation.

  • Philanthropy Daily Digest 09/07/2011

    Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

    Philanthropy Daily Digest 09/03/2011

    • Alliance Magazine focuses on the Gates Foundation this month. The introduction by guest editor Tim Ogden is free and offers an interesting set of comparisons that highlight the size (or lack thereof) of Gates. Other articles available to subscribers offer a range of interesting perspectives as well as an interview with Gates CEO Jeff Raikes.

      tags: philanthropy

    Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

    Philanthropy Daily Digest 09/02/2011

    Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

    Philanthropy Daily Digest 09/01/2011

    Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.