Thinking About Philanthropy…and It’s a Wonderful Life

May 20, 2009

David Grant, President and CEO

I recently spent an afternoon with the Board and staff of another foundation. They were planning to “spend down” the foundation’s several hundred million dollars and were planning backwards from twenty years out, thinking about their legacy.

What would make a foundation great as it closed its doors, and in whose eyes?

We are tempted to focus on the “what” – the outcomes and impacts of a foundation’s philanthropy. Maybe success would be a library, or laboratory, or theatre with the foundation’s name on it for years to come. Maybe success would be a program that becomes so widely known and accepted in society that no one remembers where it came from – a Head Start or a 9-1-1. Or maybe success would be the eradication of a disease, where ironically it is the absence of something that becomes an important legacy.

The “what” is critically important. But just as critically important is the “how.”

Foundations have extraordinary privileges. They are supposed to be “above” politics, and their wealth places them above the marketplace as well – they don’t have to perform well to survive. Their basic work of determining the allocation of scarce resources gives them power and prerogatives beyond those of the people who desire or need those resources.

Under these circumstances, I believe that how foundations do their work, day-to-day, week-to-week, becomes a measure of their success equally as important as anything more tangible they may leave behind.

This is not just about returning phone calls, though that is part if it. It is seeing the world through the eyes of non-profit organizations, their clients and constituencies. It is being as transparent as possible about intentions. It is sharing the struggles and the joys of working with others for social good.

Maybe success in the end will be less about strategies and outcomes than about who you were as you pursued them. Maybe success will be looking back on those twenty years, or fifty years, or however long a foundation might be around, and being able to say, “We lived in our community. We had real relationships and real partnerships. We tried to listen, respect, understand, and serve.”