Have Faith (and Keep Going)

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Whenever I am tempted to feel blue or pessimistic about JSF’s effectiveness all I have to do is listen to our peers, which I had the opportunity to do last week at The Center of Effective Philanthropy (CEP) Biannual Conference in Boston.

During a plenary session CEP reported that 67% of Foundation CEOs feel that Foundations are capable of making a significant difference but only 13% of them think that Foundations actually do make a significant difference. This came from a survey of 428 Foundation CEOs conducted last year by CEP. There were 167 responses (including ours).

How can it be that almost 90% of Foundation CEOs feel that they are not making a significant difference?

Two thirds of Foundation CEOs cited internal “challenges” which prevent their Foundation from achieving its programmatic goals. Among these are “lack of internal agreement”, “too many focus areas”, a “passive grant making culture”, “lack of alignment between staff and the board”, difficulty in finding “exemplary employees and leaders to help drive towards goals”, ineffective boards, “lack of bravery in grant making” and inflexibility.

About half of the CEOs said that external barriers hamper Foundation effectiveness. Among those are the “sheer magnitude and complexity of the problems” the “current political and economic climate” and “the increasing separation of privileged and less-privileged in our society.”

One third of CEOs cited a lack of collaboration and bemoaned the unwillingness “of other funders to collaborate”. One CEO said that “in spite of general agreement about outcome [there is] limited agreement about methodology; therefore limited co-operation.” Others thought that collaboration was stifled by “ego…competition…people stuff.”

Foundation CEOs were equally as pessimistic about Foundations’ preparedness to meet future needs of society. Most of them think that Foundations need to change but only 14% believe that this is very likely to happen. Those same CEOs cite increased listening to grantees, risk taking and collaboration as “promising practices.”

Why is there such apparent lethargy and pessimism among Foundation CEOs? Beyond noting that the issues facing foundations are often large and complex, CEP’s conclusion doesn’t directly address this question. It notes that CEOs “know that they must do better even as they appear somewhat lacking in confidence that they can or will” and expresses the hope that they will “set and then pursue the practices that most of them agree matter most for impact.”

There is a lack of immediacy, even an air of unreality, in these survey responses and in Foundations’ view of themselves and the world. How can serious people admit that their organization lacks focus, or an effective board, or good employees, or bravery and do nothing about it? Would we make a grant to such an organization?

How can JSF resist this “foundation malaise”? We must be mindful that, unlike most organizations, our accountability is internally imposed and requires discipline and action. We must embrace this and, as the saying goes, keep our feet on the ground even while our head is in the clouds.

Above all else, we must have faith in our mission and keep going.