A Recipe for Managing in Difficult Times

Thursday, May 14, 2009

By Hildy J. Simmons

While sorting through some office files recently, I came across a speech I gave in December 1990 at the annual meeting of the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee (NPCC). In looking it over, I found that one of the things I said then was that grantmakers and grantseekers needed to find ways to work together in lean times. No, I’m not prescient, but for those of you who were not paying attention to such matters two decades ago, it was a moment when we were facing extensive service cuts across the City and I used the speech to express the hope that we—grantmakers and grantseekers—had learned something from the fiscal crisis of the 1970s as we struggled to figure out ways to keep programs going and to make progress on various social issues. It was, I thought, a teachable moment.

I think we have one now as well. I also would like to think that I have learned a lot since 1990. One thing I know is that neither the world we live in nor the crisis we now face are the same as what we were dealing with twenty years ago, but there are similarities. My thinking may have evolved over the years, but the longer I am in this field of philanthropy—advising, deciding, giving—the more certain truths remain, to me at least, both self-evident and relevant.

My younger daughter is a chef and when she was in culinary school she told me that there are five “mother” sauces in French cooking. If you can master them, you can, so she said, do anything. No surprise to anyone who may be reading this who knows me—I can neither name nor master them. But her discussion of this some years ago got me thinking about philanthropic practice.

I concluded that there are five concepts that apply to my notion, at least, of effective philanthropy. I believe wise donors should consider them and that wise organizations seeking funding should understand them as well. They apply in good times or in lean times. They are relevant for all giving styles. We would have many more successful outcomes, in my opinion, even in difficult times such as those we are now facing, if these simple points were given full consideration before funding decisions were made.

So in the spirit of the recently observed Mother’s Day, here are my five “mother sauces” of effective philanthropy:

  1. Support people, not programs. Remember philanthropy at its finest is an investment in human capital. Quality leadership, on both board and staff, is essential.
  2. Look for leverage and where your deployment of resources can best be used. Remember that size may matter, but bigger is not always better. Sometimes small amounts of money, well-placed, can make a huge difference, and it can be as important to be concerned with scaling in rather than scaling up. (I recommend everyone read the work of the Nonprofit Finance Fund to understand the concepts of being a “builder” or a “buyer” since it helps to clarify the uses of philanthropic capital, something every donor and seeker of funds would do well to fully comprehend.)
  3. Understand impact and results and, by all means, have goals, objectives, and outcome measurements, but only count and assess what matters and what will be useful in learning from the past and informing future activity.
  4. Have an appropriate time horizon for engagement and results. Remember that change takes time and lasting change can take a long time. Think about your exit strategy early on and remember that the real hard work is in making things “stick,” not getting them started.
  5. Do no harm.

Unlike the top chefs, I cannot claim that mastering these five “sauces” will help you do everything, and—as much as it might be amusing—I don’t want to belabor the food analogy. That said, however, I can and do assert that these are key ingredients to better outcomes for donors and recipients. They are, in short, a recipe for effectiveness that holds up regardless of what else you may have in your philanthropic cupboard.

Hildy Simmons has been involved in the philanthropic community for over 25 years. Through October 2003 she was a Managing Director and head of the Global Foundations Group at JPMorgan Private Bank, overseeing the grantmaking of more than 40 foundations. From June 1990 through October 2001, Ms. Simmons was responsible for J.P. Morgan’s corporate philanthropy program. As an independent consultant, she currently advises select clients on their philanthropic activities. Prior to joining Morgan in October 1986, Ms. Simmons served as the Program Director of the Norman Foundation and held a variety of positions in New York City and State government, including serving as a New York City Urban Fellow from 1971-72. She is a former Chair of the Philanthropy New York Board of Directors, the current Chair of the New York City Board of Correction, and serves on the boards of the Sister Fund, the Mary J. Hutchins Foundation, the Taconic Foundation, the Jerome L. Greene Foundation, and the Brooklyn Community Foundation.

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