5 Ways Philanthropic Foundations Need to Evolve in 2015 - A Manifesto

It's Fall, and with Thanksgiving around the corner, it's time to start thinking about the New Year. For 2015, I'd like to challenge philanthropic foundations nationwide to evolve and improve the way they work with fundraisers. Here are five ways to do just that:

1. Reduce the Power Gradient - Many philanthropic foundations, particularly the larger ones, seem to pride themselves on having an intimidating process, from overly-complicated online applications on their websites to offices that trumpet the foundation's opulence. It's not uncommon to show up for a meeting with a Program Officer and have to wait 15-20 minutes, without an apology or any hint of why they kept you waiting that long. I remember one family foundation member keeping us in the room, talking non-stop for three hours - simply because he could, and he wanted us to know it. Foundations large and small should stop lording their money and power over the nonprofits they fund. Remember, you are stewards of the public's money; your donors, may they rest in peace, bequeathed their money to the public trust, and your job is to give it to worthy causes.

Yes, Program Officers, you have great power based on that number in your bank account. But that number is nothing without the nonprofits on the ground doing the back-breaking, thankless work of repairing our broken world. So get your heads out of your spreadsheets and start making connections, being creative, and helping spur innovation. And please, stop acting like you are doing us a huge favor by taking that meeting with us, and at least offer us coffee while we wait!

2. Read Our Grant Reports, and Ask Good Questions - It's amazing how rarely I've been asked a single question on the grant reports I've filled out. Never a "Wow, how did you handle your finances so effectively?," "What factors influenced your success/failure?", or even a "Why did you choose to use this particular metric?" If you let our reports gather dust in your filing cabinets, then you are wasting your donors' money and, worse, not helping move our field forward. If you don't care about our reporting, then don't ask us to collect the data at all. And if you do care about reporting, then get our permission to share our data widely.

3. Share Our Stories - It's time for the funding community to use and share the data that we work so hard to collect, whether that's Excel spreadsheets or powerful anecdotes. We share our experiences with you because we want you to feel good about your gift and, if you have donors and Board members, we would respectfully ask you to share these stories with them as well. We all deserve to feel good about our inspiring work, right?

So, carve out 15 minutes at the beginning of each Board meeting to tell these stories and remind your trustees why you're there. Helping grantee organizations tell their story better or to a wider audience is a huge value-add that the foundation community can bring to the average nonprofit.

4. Doing Good Isn't the Same as Making Real Change - In 2015, let's resolve as a nonprofit industry that we are going to make some tough choices. And one of those choices should be that foundations will make larger, more substantive, and more powerful grants that can actually move the needle on some of our society's most pressing issues. And those smaller, legacy grants that many agencies rely on? Well, those are going away. Yes, moving the needle will leave some nonprofits behind. So it's incumbent upon the funding community to communicate these strategic changes in an empathetic, transparent manner.

5. Foundations Need to Morph Into Partners - How's this for a radical idea: instead of just a simple rejection letter or phone call saying, "You don't fit our strategic priorities right now," how about funders connect applicants to organizations that are doing the same work, only better? For example, "We didn't fund your social service program because, based on our data, the same work is being done in a cost-effective manner by an organization down the street from you. Please connect with their CEO, Tom, at the following phone number and email address, to discuss your idea, as we would consider funding a collaboration between your organizations in the future." There, isn't that refreshing?

Instead of just begrudging check-writers, philanthropic foundations need to transform into partners, connectors, and conveners of important discussions. One great example is that of the PNC Foundation, which recently made a grant to convene the first-ever Re-Entry Summit here in Cleveland, so all the organizations working in this space can come together to discuss how to better collaborate. A second great example is the Weinberg Foundation, whose staff has been incredibly warm and approachable, and gladly offers up connections to its other grantees and partners.

Great foundations see the world as one deeply interconnected place, and are moving to break down the silos. For example, you can't have workforce development without focusing on improving education and economic development simultaneously; workforce development is an imaginary construct based on those two pillars. So funders in those areas need to work together. And don't be afraid to use the CASE method or R&D.

CASE = Copy and Steal Everything
R&D = Ripoff and Duplicate

Let's bring great ideas from one city or neighborhood to the next. Funders need to continue to look broadly, even internationally, to find the next great idea and bring it to their own geographic focus. And that involves a paradigm shift from check-writers to partnership-brokers.

Here's looking forward to a fantastic 2015, where we all work together to shift philanthropy and make an even bigger difference worldwide.

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