If the job of the foundation board is to oversee strategy and determine the effectiveness of the organization in achieving its goals, isn’t it also the board’s job to pick the right grantees?
For large foundations that want to achieve big audacious goals, selecting individual grantees is probably not the best use of their wisdom. Therein lies one of the strange dichotomies of foundation board governance—a tension that has to be carefully managed by foundation CEOs.
When I started my career in philanthropy, all the foundation boards I knew of reviewed dockets—lists of staff-recommended grants for that quarter. (It’s interesting that philanthropy borrowed the word ‘docket’ from the legal profession, where it is ubiquitously used to refer to ‘cases to be tried,’ as well as calendaring.) Back in the day, those boards discussed each grant and gave a thumbs up or down based on whether the staff write-up was sufficiently compelling. The board’s main job was to approve grants.
But times are changing.
The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recently released report, Benchmarking Foundation Governance, offers a small peek into the changing nature of governance at foundations. Improving strategy, measurement, and effectiveness requires that foundation boards conduct their business differently. Most still adhere to a traditional calendar of four meetings per year (at an average of four hours per meeting, for a total of 16 hours of full board face time). But discussions about theories of change, adaptive evaluation, and strategic planning, which are at the center of thought leadership in the field, may be taking a greater share of time in foundation boardrooms.
Slightly more boards report a focus on foundation strategy (77 percent) than on approving grants (67 percent). Clearly boards do both, but I suspect the balance has evolved over time.
I was pleased to see that 59 percent of foundations delegate some grant decision-making to staff for grants below a certain dollar level. Even more positive is the finding that the median dollar max was an impressive $125,000. This approach to board work is both a wise time management tool as well as a demonstration of trust in staff expertise. Focusing board discussions on strategy and reserving grant discussions for those above a certain threshold prioritizes board time on the big questions and the big bets. Individual, large-scale grantpicking is a time sink that strategic boards can ill afford.
But boards also cannot get too far removed from the business of the enterprise. Since most foundations achieve their goals primarily through relationships with external organizations, how can boards be divorced from the task of selecting the right grantees?
The fact that 39 percent of large foundations have board discretionary funds from which individual board members can make grants with little or no staff involvement may be another tool that helps manage the tension. Board members may use those discretionary accounts like mini-venture funds to go toward smaller organizations they identify that may not yet pass rigorous due diligence. Or they may select grantees working on longer term issues in fields in which the board member has particularly deep content knowledge. Practically speaking, discretionary funds might also serve as a release valve, allowing board members to exercise their grantpicking impulse without having that activity take up too much of those precious 16 hours of face time.
In any case, more study of philanthropic governance would provide insights on how organizations manage these tensions between grantpicking and strategic thinking. How do foundations get the best out of their boards? Behind closed doors, interesting innovations in governance may well be occurring.
The Philanthropy in Asia 2014 conference launched on 20 October in the chambers of Singapore’s Old Parliament Building, the wood-panelled halls where the city-state was founded. Prime Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew’s worn leather seat bears his name etched in a bronze plaque on the headrest.
The historic site was purposely selected by Patsian Low, conference organizer at the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre, in order to evoke the economic progress that supports increasing levels of philanthropy – and the uneven distribution of wealth that calls for it.
Current affairs played a role in the conference proceedings. Attendance at the swearing-in ceremony of Indonesia’s newly elected President Joko Widodo prevented Mr Tahir of the Tahir Foundation (and recent Giving Pledge signatory) from delivering the keynote, and teatime hallway discussions included many questions to Hong Kong participants about the ongoing protests. Yet the focus remained on the future.
The keynote was ably delivered by Audette Exel of Australia’s ISIS Foundation who described the lessons learned from her long-term philanthropic work with children in remote villages in Uganda and Nepal. The ISIS Foundation (which will soon undergo a name change) is funded entirely by ISIS Asia Pacific, her niche financial services corporation where all profits go towards funding the non-profit foundation. ‘I’m not a successful businessperson now turning to doing good, I am a social activist who figured I needed to learn about business.’ She talked about the importance of ‘purpose’ for all employees, not just those in the social sector, and the fact that more financial services firms need to take up social engagement.
Prapti Upadhyay and I shared highlights from the Lien Centre for Social Innovation’s report Levers for Change: Philanthropy in Select Southeast Asian Countries which outlined key public policies that can encourage strategic philanthropy in the region. These include creating clearly defined charitable legal structures, improving tax policy, encouraging more community philanthropy, building philanthropy advisory services, mandating greater transparency and data collection.
Following that, a plenary panel entitled ‘Windows to the Future: A Networked Philanthropy’ featured Naina Subberwal Batra, director of Asian Venture Philanthropy Network, moderating a discussion with representatives from Twitter, Microsoft, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lien Centre for Social Innovation. Parminder Singh from Twitter described the power of Twitter as a platform for social change and fundraising, citing the spontaneous response to the Jammu and Kashmir floods that resulted in the creation of #JKfloodrelief (and subsequently JKfloodrelief.org). This entirely volunteer-run response, in the first week following the floods, used Twitter to coordinate the delivery of 15 tons of food and 4 tons of life-saving medicine and opened a critical communication platform for emergency relief coordination. Most of the organizers have still never met in person, but they nonetheless created a powerful volunteer team.
In a breakout session on collaboration, Veronica Colondam of the YCAB Foundation in Indonesia described the ways in which lack of a legal structure to incorporate social enterprises is limiting their ability to expand their services to at-risk youth. In the same session, Rob John of the Asia Centre for Social Entrepreneurship and Philanthropy at NUS Business School shared his research on the rise of giving circles in Asia as a means of philanthropy, donor education and community building.
As participants boarded buses to diverse themed dinners, discussions were lively and debates engaging. The gathering provided a great setting for plotting the future course of philanthropy in the region.
This post was also published in Alliance Magazine’s online edition.
Elegant and well-heeled would be the best way to describe them. I smiled at these two women of indeterminate age who I had just met at the launch of the UBS-INSEAD Study on Family Philanthropy in Asia. As I moved to introduce them to one another, they both laughed and said, “We’ve known each other since…” putting the flat of their hands forward at small-child-height.
“ We were neighbors,” the petite Chinese woman said.
“Our apartment was here, and their apartment was there,” said the smiling Indian woman, pointing her finger in the upward diagonal.
“Didn’t you play marbles?” One asked the other with a mischievous grin.
“Oh yes, all the time. And with the boys!”
“And every day your mom—rest her soul. She was a real force of nature. She would go to the market over there on…”
“And my father, he’s not well now, but we take care of him at home…”
“Yes, we knew each other.”
“ But it’s not like that anymore.”
“ No nothing is like that anymore.”
There was silence as I imagined them thinking about all the changes—education, jobs, marriage, kids, and clearly wealth—that had happened since those long-ago days. For a brief moment I could almost see the bustling apartments these women described, in the brand-new nation Singapore was 30 or so years ago. Where families knew one another, children played in empty lots, and what bound everyone together was that they were all strivers.
We drifted apart as the 150+ person crowd wandered into the auditorium to hear the current state of family philanthropy as described by the recently completed study. Despite the fact that we are all living in the midst of Asia’s economic engine, the stats were still mind-boggling.
- China now has over 1 million US dollar millionaires.
- In recent years, Indian households have witnessed the highest absolute gains in wealth in the world.
- By the end of 2009 there were some 3 million Asian Pacific high net worth individuals, equaling the number in Europe for the first time, and their wealth totaled US $9.7 trillion.
But the rising tide has not raised all boats.
- In sheer numbers the region is still the largest locus of poverty and deprivation in the world. In 2005 there were over 660 million people in India and China alone who lived on less than US $1.25 per day.
- In India, the wealthiest 5% of the population control 40% of the country’s wealth.
All of these statistics from the report were only the prelude to the substance of the discussion. Through 200 quantitative surveys and over 100 in-depth interviews, the report’s author Mahboob Mahmood, Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship and Family Enterprise captured themes on motivations for giving, priorities, and philanthropic approaches.
The image that emerges is a charitable sector led by closely held family businesses with a strong entrepreneurial ethos, complex intergenerational relationships, delicate succession and legacy challenges, and a deep awareness (particularly on the part of the patriarchs and older generations) of the power of education to change the course of lives in a single generation. Philanthropy is a useful mechanism for reinforcing shared values with the goal of supporting family cohesion and harmony.
Education is by far the largest area of investment, with poverty alleviation and health distant seconds and thirds. Arts/culture (4%), the environment (4%) and civil rights (1%) were small also-rans.
Among the challenges cited was lack of experienced staff, the perception (and sometimes reality) of a limited number of high-impact NGO partners, and difficulty in finding philanthropic co-investors who are aligned in mission.
The incredibly generous families who participated in the study are to be lauded for their leadership. They are impressive fonts of giving but as yet there exist few networks of strategic philanthropy that can achieve what the authors called, “sustained transformational impact in Asia.”
I was struck by the words of panelist Laurence Lien, CEO of Singapore’s National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre and a member of one of Singapore’s most philanthropic families when he said, “The most important use of philanthropy is social innovation and social change. Charity is important, but there is much more to do.”
His comments took me back to the conversation I’d had earlier with those two elegant, well-heeled ladies. Money provides privilege to those who possess it but it also changes everything. It can create fractures in families, as well as in societies. It can disconnect people from their broader community. And the relentless drive for economic growth can take a deep toll on cultural traditions as well as our physical environment.
The challenge ahead for philanthropists in Asia, indeed philanthropists everywhere, is to engage with communities in developing solutions. Charity is usually top-down, highly transactional and rarely transformative. It is important, but not enough. Transformational impact can be achieved by moving beyond charity with strategic analysis, community engagement, and emphasis on our shared vision and common destiny. Networks and collaboration are required. Civil society can play an essential role in reweaving the fabric of society. But it requires more than charity. It requires vision more than just money.
The title of this post was at least partially inspired by the Jesse J. song my kids adore which is on a regular loop in our house…
This piece was originally posted on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s website where I have been a guest blogger. The Center for Effective Philanthropy (www.effectivephilanthropy.org) provides foundations with comparative data to enable higher performance.
A recent Harris Interactive poll suggests that Americans intend to give less in 2010 than in 2009. A combination of high unemployment and economic uncertainty have caused generous people to feel slightly less so. Despite this fact, it is also clear that Americans are giving more in new ways this year than ever before. Five years ago, we didn’t have the option to Tweet for Change, or, through Foursquare, Check-in for Change.*
One young woman who was interviewed about “check-in giving” through the CauseWorld app said, “CauseWorld makes me feel like I’m doing some good in the world every day. I don’t have much money to give to charity these days, like most people, so having a chance to direct money to some really important causes means a lot to me.” Declines in charitable giving have occurred in the past, but never before has that decline been coupled with the rise of so many other quick-hit ways to express generosity.
If the desire to be generous can be assuaged by directing someone else’s money, will we still feel compelled to give? Will we be willing to sacrifice our own money to support the causes we care about? For example, Starbuck’s has tested making charitable contributions as a benefit of checking-in. While this may be an appealing experiment to Starbucks regulars, it should be noted that these $4-latte-lovers are not offering to drop their Starbucks habit in order to direct those funds to charity.
Questions such as these were raised by Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker piece as well. Will casual support displace deep commitment? The jury is still out, but I think the potential difference in how nonprofits receive funding from individuals could, over time, be quite important. In aggregate, annual giving—usually defined as contributions from individuals—represents a core, stable funding base for many nonprofits. In fact, annual giving is often the counterweight to time-limited or non-renewable funding from corporations and foundations.
If, over time, nonprofits receive more and more funding from these embedded giving/contribution consolidators, will that negatively affect nonprofits’ cash flow? One recent study by Network for Good suggests the answer is yes. When offered a gift, the question nonprofit leaders often ask is not just “how much?” but “how often?” They all know that a consistent gift of X is almost always more valuable than a one-time gift of X+. So that leads to another question, how can nonprofits convert those casual givers to become regular givers?
In order to help nonprofits do this, foundations need to support the development of fundraising practices that help nonprofits engage with these new giving vehicles. Nonprofits shouldn’t simply be passive recipients of grants from social media philanthropic aggregators, they should be active participants. But as Beth Kanter regularly points out in her blog posts, an effective nonprofit social media fundraising strategy requires thought and time (and funders, that means money).
Nonprofits will need to learn how the ease of transaction (“Press # now on your cell phone to give a dollar to Haiti relief efforts”) can be maintained without nonprofits having to cede the entire relationship to a charity portal. In his recent Harvard Business Reviewpost, Dan Pallota also points out the importance of foundations placing strategic emphasis on their grantees’ fundraising capacity. While I am a strong advocate of general operating support, I think that foundations should go further to engage with grantees about fund development and adapting to the changing technological landscape.
Those of us who fund nonprofits can often be heard criticizing the lack of strategy and financial planning among nonprofits. But if embedded giving allows people to express support for many groups, will that lessen people’s allegiance to specific groups? Maybe funders should be putting more thought, research, and money into helping nonprofits creatively respond to these new fundraising challenges and amazing opportunities.
* Geo-location sites like Foursquare and Gowalla are game-like mobile phone applications that invite people to “check-in” when they have arrived somewhere and give a quick status update, similar to Facebook. On most sites, people gain points or credits the more often they check-in. Companies are beginning to offer coupons or time limited deals when people check-in. Causeworld is a similar site which gives people points they can use like frequent flyer miles to make donations to charities.