After posting some analysis of his survey, a few thoughts of my own on Jake Hayman’s blog entitled Not Fit For Purpose: Why I’m Done With the Foundation World.
Firstly, I don’t think Jake was overdoing it in what he said. I don’t mind calling a spade a spade to get a debate going so, knowing Jake, didn’t think it was just one man’s ungrateful or angry rant. Some people thought he went too far, some people think it was long overdue commentary, so he probably pitched it about right. There weren’t even any swear words in it, so he can’t take the title for the sector’s most unreasonable commentator just yet.
It’s also a very important debate to be having. And it’s a conversation I’m particularly interested in, not because, as Jake doesn’t, I think foundations are all terrible at what they do. But because I’m acutely aware, and even more so in recent years just how much the flow of finance to social sector organisations is the key factor that shapes them and ensures the success of social sector interventions. That with good staff teams, effective innovation, even favourable winds for an idea, most often success still comes down to the funds and resources an organisation can muster. I’ve written about this elsewhere when looking at the VC world and the challenges of growth and scale. To that end, our financial systems, philanthropic and for profit should be held to the highest standards. Why not at least have the debate in any case to see if there is any further value to be eeked out?
What I suppose I find most interesting engaging in the debate is how much of this has already been said from so many angles. When Jake sent me the blog I did some simple Googling to see what research/strategy/analysis had been done on the subject. Surely, I thought this is the sort of thing the foundation world spends its whole time agonising over? But no, there isn’t a lot of public analysis, mainly just some very insightful pieces from people who know the grant making work very very well. There is perhaps something here about how long it takes for research to be disseminated but it’s worth a pause for thought.
The best pieces by far I’ve come across are (two of them referenced by Jake):
- Clara Miller, The Looking-Glass World of Nonprofit Money
- Tris Lumley, Transforming Our Anti-Social Sector
- James Perry, The End of Charity
- David Carrington, What Enables or Disables Funders to Lead Change in their Organisation?
Following the debate around the blog and the survey analysis, I’m left with some key thoughts:
- We could see a lot of new foundations being created in the coming decade and we (they) would do well to learn from the past. Thomas Piketty’s analysis of growing wealth inequality perhaps suggests the return of an age in which many of the large UK foundations were founded (pre/post WWII). I’m not as comfortable as New Labour, though I am comfortable, with the idea of becoming wealthy. Yet only if you then steward those resources well. If you play the current capitalist system better than anyone else and profit from it, as long as you didn’t trample interests along the way, then more power to your elbow. But let’s then ensure that if you invest money philanthropically it is put to good use.
- Not solving some of these issues is wasting good talent and energy. The most depressing of the comments in Jake’s survey to me were the ones about exhausted talent. Echoed in my blog on: Where has all the talent gone. Jake’s blog is written not as a parting shot to the foundation world, but from someone who is actively keen to engage in how it can be improved. Some responders to the survey have clearly not the energy to last out so long. And that should pain the sector. Take a look at the free text comments at the end of the survey analysis.
- Jake has certainly put some noses out of joint but the survey response suggests there are no strong reasons to dispute his analysis. If these issues are important, why has nothing changed? Leadership? Poor accountability? Charities being complicit in the process? There are systemic forces that clearly conspire against change. Perhaps this is enlightening: quotes from Joel Fleishman and Tom Tierney in ‘Give Smart’ that the “natural state of philanthropy is one of underperformance. Excellence must be self-imposed in philanthropy. There are no built-in systemic forces to motivate continuous improvement.” “Self-imposed accountability is not a natural act. It requires extraordinary determination and discipline to pursue outstanding results year after year when nothing in the surrounding environment requires you to do so.”
Four final questions for now then:
- What are the systemic forces that conspire against change?
- What would an ideal foundation look like? I’m sure a good funding eco-system would include multiple different types of ‘ideal’ foundation – what are they?
- Who are the ‘best’ grant making foundations are in the UK/world what we can learn from them? What is current best practice in creating social change? What have we not thought of yet?
- Who is already showing leadership and how do we support them? Who else will show leadership?
Jake has displayed some of the essential elements of Ronald Heifetz’s adaptive leadership (from Leadership Without Easy Answers) methodology by bringing to the fore, once more, some difficult questions. A quote from Heifetz to end: “‘Instead of looking for saviors [sic], we should be calling for leadership that will challenge us to face problems for which there are no simple, painless solutions – problems that requires us to learn new ways.”