A Weak Foundation

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

by Ilene Mack

I have spent more than three decades in the world of philanthropy, as a program officer at a major national private foundation. I entered with little or no knowledge about my new profession, but what I knew for sure was that it was worlds away from the for-profit, corporate sector that I had known for the prior ten years. I believed it was a sector that existed on a higher plain, which did its work with honor, respect, and integrity. There was no bottom line to be concerned with; we were in the business of doing good—of caring, and being compassionate—and good we did. We were idealistic, believing that with enough people of good will working together and as a community, positive social change could be achieved. Poverty would be alleviated, if not eradicated; education would be reformed; healthcare would become equitable; and discourse would be civil. We were in a partnership with our grantees. There would be accountability and transparency, leading to effectiveness and efficiency. The playing field would be leveled. We didn’t need a bulldozer—fairness, and the notion that we were all in this together, would do the job. I was, in short, part of a field that intended to be a “foundation” for change and betterment.

I treated my grantees as I treated my friends, relatives, business associates, and colleagues—with respect and humility. Just because I worked for an institution that gave out money did not make me superior to my grantees. Now that I am retired, my perspective, often from the other side of the desk, has altered. I am afraid that much of the field and some of my colleagues have forgotten the meaning of their positions at the foundations they work for and the roles that they play.

There is always a tacit power struggle in the relationship between grantee and grantor, a power inequity that permeates the relationship, whether we admit to it or not. The words we use to describe our sector are telling. While we are all nonprofit organizations, we know what we mean when we say nonprofit. They are the askers; the supplicants, if you will; the doers, the providers of services. They are in the trenches. We, however, the philanthro – pists, pods, and poids, represent the money and we dispense the largesse. Perhaps most importantly, we can say no. The playing field can only be leveled to a certain degree. But the truth remains: we, the foundations, do not have to be responsive to the needs of our grantees, whether or not their request fits into our guidelines. That is a reality. And we have all sorts of fancy ways of declining requests. What is not okay, however, is changing horses in mid-stream with not a word of warning, reneging on our commitments and misleading our colleagues.

My foundation colleagues use the words transparency, accountability, and honesty. Yet, lately, I have heard woeful tales of reprehensible behavior on the part of foundations and their representatives. I hear stories of foundation executives giving verbal commitments to longtime grantees, while in the midst of a project that they have supported and promoted, only to turn around and make the astounding pronouncement that the grant will not be forthcoming as their guidelines have changed. And no, there were no close-out grants to ease the way. So what has been a fruitful, beneficial project now is cut off at the knees. There doesn’t seem to be any concern that not only has the grantee organization been mistreated and misled, but that all the people whose lives may have been bettered are dismissed.

Here’s where the power inequity is most visible and most painful. The foundation has every right to change its guidelines. However, to do so with little or no communication to the nonprofits that seek assistance and believe they are within the guidelines is neither transparent nor accountable. And the nonprofits have no recourse. They must accept what is in fact a fait accompli.

If I passed along any message to the young people who worked with me over the years, it was the absolute certainty that the name of our foundation was not our own. We were liaisons, advocates, connectors, and representatives. We did not endow our organization. We had a responsibility to our Board. But we were not the Board. The best we could do was to be honest to our grantees, our colleagues, our Board, and to each other. We said “no” quickly, did not mislead, and did not equivocate. Any correspondence, information, advice—whether spoken, written, or technologically transmitted—was truthful.

I am old enough to know that John Kennedy was right when he said “life is not fair.” But we who purport to do good works, to be caring and compassionate, must be exemplars of that behavior which we demand from our grantees. We are in the business of slicing the pie so that more people can come to the table and have a share. It is a grave mistake to believe that wealth and power equal omniscience. It is sadder still when that largesse is misused and misdirected.

Has our field lost its bearings? Has what Kurt Vonnegut used to call “simple common decency” disappeared from foundation ethics? While the troubling evidence I have seen sadly says “yes,” I am hopeful that this is only a trend that can be reversed. For if ever there was a need for a firm “foundation,” it is now.

Ilene Mack joined the Hearst Foundations in 1974. She helped to set up the systems and procedures that professionalized the organization and created a mission statement and guidelines for giving. Over the next 33 years, the Foundations’ assets grew from $136 million to $1 billion and $740 million was given to nonprofits around the country. Over the years, Ms. Mack was promoted from Program Officer to Senior Program Officer and in 2005 was made the Program Director, Grants. She retired from the Foundations in December 2007.

Ms. Mack serves on the boards of three nonprofit organizations concerned with the improvement of education, youth, and the nonprofit sector: The Teachers Network IMPACT II, a national organization that encourages and supports teacher leadership in public schools, where she is actively involved in fundraising and board development; ENACT, an organization using creative drama in public schools to facilitate students’ social and emotional learning and behavior change and stimulate self-reflection; and the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York, a membership organization that provides information, technical assistance, and professional development to the staff and board members of nonprofits throughout New York City. Ms. Mack is also on the National Advisory Board of the Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute, an educational partnership designed to strengthen teaching and learning in schools across the country; has served on several committees for Independent Sector; and also participates in the programs and activities of the Council on Foundations. She acts as a speaker and panelist for several local and national philanthropic and educational organizations, and is looking forward to remaining connected to the philanthropic community.

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