April 12, 2019
From the President

Framing Foundation Work

Hilary Pearson

How does one understand a philanthropic foundation? This simple question is not simply answered.  Many answers are possible. An organization that sits on a pile of money that it gives away? An organization that runs programs?  An organization that supports other organizations to bring about change in communities? An organization that funds research and learning, or that convenes around issues, or that supports risky innovations that no one else can fund?

How does one make sense of the scope and variety of foundation work? Perhaps it can be done through a “theory of the foundation”….or, less grandly put, a philanthropy “framework”.  And indeed, we have been offered such a framework. In March, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, a US-based organization that has provided advice and support to foundations and donors since 2002, released The Philanthropy Framework,  a guide to reflection, or a tool, as they describe it “to give an emerging or established philanthropy a structure to align resources for maximum impact.”

The key word here is “align”. RPA has been engaged in an effort since 2013 to work out a so-called theory of the foundation, that aligns a foundation’s purpose to its resources and strategies and to its obligations to its stakeholders. RPA launched its initiative in order to explore how foundation leaders (staff and board members) might think about their organizations in a way that goes deeper than simply considering and planning their programs. Working and testing with over 50 foundations in the USA and in Europe, RPA has put together a framework that helps to align the components of a foundation’s “system”. These components are: a charter, a social compact and an operating model. This is an interesting way of framing aspects of a foundation that might be considered separately but aren’t always thought of in alignment. More specifically, the charter is the foundation’s mission, scope, values, governance and way of thinking about its purpose. Its social compact is the “implicit or explicit agreement with society about the value it will create”. And the operating model is the approach a foundation takes to the resources, structures and systems needed to implement its actions or strategies.

Most foundations have articulated an intent of some kind (even if not formally written). Most make grants in pursuit of that intent. And many have formally or informally dedicated resources to that grantmaking. Not many, to be honest, pursue more deeply the question of their agreement with society about the value they create for society and to whom they are accountable. The point is to think about and, in doing so, to find a way to align these elements for greater value. RPA has produced a guide that defines each of these elements and provides a way to discuss them.

While the work that RPA has done to test their guide has been done with many larger foundations, I think that the three elements they have identified are perfectly applicable to smaller foundation as well.  The key question that you start with, whether you are a smaller foundation or a larger one, is do you think about yourself as an “institution” not simply as an individualized philanthropic vehicle?  If you are an institution (or an organization), you need to make decisions about that organization.  What does it stand for?  What does it want to accomplish? How does it want to go about doing it? And who does it want to tell about its work, and why? This guide helps to frame your thinking about how to bring all these elements into alignment with each other.  For example, if you have a purpose to reduce inequality or eradicate poverty or promote opportunities for the disadvantaged, and you have a long-term perspective, do you provide multi-year unrestricted support to your grantees (since many of them struggle with their own capacity)? Do you proactively seek representation within your organization of the populations that you are trying to help since in most cases they aren’t included in decision-making? Do you work in an open way so that your partners understand how you make decisions? Do you use convening resources to bring marginalized groups together so that they can support each other to act more effectively?

These are just some of the questions you could ask yourself as leaders of an organization. RPA provides in its guide some examples of how the foundations it has worked with have put together their charters, operating models and social compacts in a way that reinforces each element. There are many possible decisions within each of these elements. RPA does not suggest any one prescription for “how to be”. But this is an extraordinarily useful way to consider what matters in making a foundation successful and valuable as an “organization”, not just a collection of assets and grants.

Virtually simultaneously, a report has been released by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, titled Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations. This report distills lessons learned from 35 leaders of 14 foundations who helped to get their organizations off the ground. One of these lessons is remarkably similar to that of the leaders in the RPA guide: build a shared understanding among donors, board, staff, and grantees about how the organization will approach its work.  In addition, the CEP report leaders suggest: Leadership characterized by humility, courage, and resourcefulness; and an organization with a sense of what success is and an orientation toward learning.

Some wise word shared in these new compilations of thoughts and advice about how to frame a foundation’s work most effectively.

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