Greater Good

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is a leading thinker in our business. Its research and commentary are evidence based and rigorous.

CEP’s biannual meeting will be held in early May in Minneapolis, and I will attend along with two members of our Board of Directors. The pre-conference session will feature CEP’s most recent research paper, Greater Good: Lessons from those who have started major grantmaking organizations. CEP studied 14 major organizations that either started or grew substantially over the last two decades. In this study, “major” was defined as having at least $350 million in assets. These 14 organizations, although bigger, are our peers and their experience over the last 20 years is relevant to us.

CEP describes the three common elements to getting a philanthropic organization off the ground:

Leadership characterized by humility, courage and resourcefulness,

A shared understanding among donors, board, staff and grantees about how the organization will approach its work, and

A sense of what success is and an orientation toward learning.

This is no surprise to us. Leadership is everything; a good Board, over time, always means a good organization. “A shared understanding” (strategy) is essential if a foundation is to have any real impact. And goals — “a sense of what success is” — go hand-in-hand with strategy.

It is reassuring that our peers have faced these issues and drawn similar conclusions to ours. However, the more interesting aspects of this study are in the details. One organization talked about the arrogance of its youth in thinking that it alone had the answers and dictating to grantees. It took time to learn what it did not know and to recognize that grantees ought to be asked what they need rather than told. Humility comes with experience and knowledge.

Another organization struggled with interpreting donor intent and still asks itself “what would the donor do if he were still alive?” JSF has codified the experience and intentions of its founders into a mission statement and core values. This allows us to remain faithful to “donor intent” while evolving to reflect changing times and our increased experience. It seems preferable to continually asking ourselves what our founders would do.

One prevalent theme that runs through this study is that there is no roadmap for philanthropy. Much of what emerging foundations learn is piecemeal and from trial and error. Philanthropy is a relatively small and undeveloped field of endeavor. It is not well understood from the outside, and those entering it — particularly those with large amounts of money to spend — would benefit from easy access to the experience of those who have gone before. 

Malcolm Macleod is the president and CEO of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF). Since joining the Foundation as president in 2001, he has spent the past 18 years working with the Board, staff and grantees to ensure that JSF is a Foundation that makes quality grants serving as catalysts for effective change. Prior to his work with the Foundation, he had a 26-year career in law and is currently a member of the Bar.