A Long Overdue Guide for New Philanthropic Organizations

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

A Long Overdue Guide for New Philanthropic Organizations
By Stephanie Cuskley, CEO of The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. This article was originally published by The Center for Effective Philanthropy on April 11, 2018.

This year marks the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s tenth year as an active grantmaker.

During these last 10 years, we have discovered that when it comes to ramping up a new foundation or grantmaking organization, there is no single “how-to guide” or step-by-step plan to follow, despite the philanthropic community being a dynamic and complex one. There’s no clear outlet where veterans of philanthropy can systematically impart their knowledge — as well as cautions about their missteps — to the next generation.

The time is ripe for this type of resource. We’re experiencing almost unprecedented momentum in philanthropy, with more than 30,000 new private foundations established in the U.S. in the past 20 years. 

That’s why we commissioned the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to conduct an independent and rigorous study on this topic, findings from which are shared in their new report published yesterday, Greater Good: Lessons From Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations. The report serves as a long overdue guide for newly-formed philanthropies. With recognition that there is no single blueprint for new grantmaking organizations to follow, the report offers advice on leadership; on approaching work with alignment between board members, staff, and grantees; and on the importance of taking risks and orienting each of our organizations toward continuous learning and improvement. CEP’s research team spoke with 35 leaders from 14 organizations, including trustees, CEOs, program staff, and operations staff, each of whom shared lessons based on their own experiences.

Many of the lessons in the report can be applied to any stage of an organization’s development, but they are especially critical considerations for those just getting started. Based on the responses received, three key elements for success stuck out.

First, an early-stage grantmaking organization must have leadership characterized by humility, courage, and resourcefulness.  If you are invested in your team, it empowers staff to do the work that’s needed to invest in your programs and the communities you serve. When we were determining the hallmark values that would lead the Helmsley Charitable Trust’s work, we learned how important it was to engage every employee in the process of shaping those values. When every employee understands what the organization’s values mean, it allows them to in turn serve as effective ambassadors for the organization.

Second, philanthropies must establish a shared understanding among donors, board members, staff, and grantees about how the organization will approach its work. Like many of our peers, our work at Helmsley is driven by the voices and needs of the people we serve. Over the past 10 years, we have worked alongside our grantees to provide partnership and support that extends beyond the grants themselves — whether that’s through helping them foster additional connections or grapple with new ideas.

Third, it’s critical that each organization has a sense of what success looks like, as well as an orientation toward learning. Private foundations have a unique opportunity to enact change. To do so, you must have a willingness to take risks and maximize impact. For us, this means a commitment to continuous learning and looking to the future. We reflect, assess, and strive to improve every day.

Though we have only been an active grantmaker for 10 years and still have so much work to do to continue advancing our mission, we are proud of the impact we have made thus far. As we reflect on the past decade and look ahead to the next, we recognize the great privilege we have to be part of this sector — a privilege that comes with a deep responsibility to make an impact and drive progress. We can think of no better way to mark this occasion than by helping to share key insights about this work, which we believe will help our new peers chart the course for building strong grantmaking organizations of their own — and with them a more effective philanthropic sector.

Stephanie Cuskley is CEO of The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust. Follow Helmsley on Twitter at @HelmsleyTrust.