Private, Not Isolated

By Andrew Schulz, Foundation Source

ASF is pleased to feature the second post in a multipart series from our colleagues at Foundation Source, a leading provider of comprehensive support services for private foundations. Foundation Source shares our commitment to helping donors maximize their dollars and time. Read the first post in the series

For as long as I’ve been involved with philanthropy, people have talked about how important privacy is to private foundations. Not privacy in the sense of secrecy, but freedom from the pressures that other sectors face that often prevent them from tackling persistent (and often controversial) issues facing society.

Foundations, shielded from the constant focus on quarterly profits, election cycles, or annual fundraising goals, can take risks, pursue goals that take time, and work to identify and mitigate causes rather respond to symptoms. Nearly everyone agrees that some freedom from these influences is part of the secret sauce that makes private philanthropy work.

But just because private foundations have, and should have, the right to be independent does not mean they should constantly exercise that right. If they do, the result is not emboldening autonomy that enables effective pursuit of the common good, but isolation. When no one is looking over your shoulder, it’s too easy to become complacent, tolerate mediocrity, and lose impact.

Foundations should embrace the right to be private, but must also appreciate and act on the rare position that it puts them in to engage in genuine discussion, offer and receive criticism, and challenge the status quo. It is precisely because foundations cannot be compelled to act by market forces, popular opinion, or politics that they must have the courage to choose to engage where others cannot or will not.

For many, this will be uncomfortable, even painful. It’s not easy to hear that you could be doing your work better, and it’s even harder to tell others the same.

If this is new to you, start simply. Reach out a handful of funders who share an interest in a common outcome. Talk about what you want to do, what you’ve tried, what works, and what doesn’t work. Listen. Be open to constructive criticism, and be willing to give it.

From there, expand the conversation. Talk with grantees, academics, policy officials. Not for the sake of talking, but to root out solutions to hard problems. Be active. Don’t just welcome challenges, seek them. Keep driving yourself and others to be better, to do more. It won’t always work, but not trying will never work.

If we don’t interact, challenge one another, and face the tough questions, who can? It takes a bit of a thick skin to do this work, but it is essential or the problems we tackle simply won’t get better. We won’t achieve meaningful change and we won’t be effective. Worst of all, we won’t be relevant and we will not have earned the freedom, independence, and autonomy that we have.

So, do you use your privacy and independence as a tool to achieve the change you are seeking, or has it become a shield to protect you from things that are uncomfortable or difficult? If the latter, consider how you can use it instead of just hiding behind it. It could make a big difference.

Schulz-Andrew-Small-180x224Andrew Schulz, a nationally recognized authority on private foundations and member of the Maryland and District of Columbia bars, is National Director of Community and Legal Relations at Foundation Source. He is responsible for developing, implementing, and overseeing the resources, relationships, and dynamics of the Foundation Source community of grantmakers, philanthropists, advisors, attorneys, and others aligned around private foundations. He also cultivates partnerships and referral relationships with practicing attorneys throughout the United States and advances Foundation Source’s voice within policy, legislative, and regulatory circles. 

4 thoughts on “Private, Not Isolated

  1. As a board member of a private foundation I find the ability to ignore the “pressures that other sectors face” quite liberating. However, with that freedom comes responsibility and one of those responsibilities is to not become isolated in our little foundation fantasy world. Ways to work around this include the old fashion skill of reading about philanthropy current and historical, joining in local gatherings of other foundations/organizations, attending conferences and taking the session that makes me squirm, and requiring board member education.

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