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Is It Really All About the Deck Chairs?

November 10, 2011

A few things funders can do to move more than the furniture.

With huge cuts in government social and education funding, cuts in foundation and corporate giving budgets, and new limitations in the funding agendas of institutional donors, it’s a natural question – do institutional donors sincerely intend to  invest in positive social change or are they satisfied with the status quo?

Some years ago, people would say positive institutional policy changes, such as anti-poverty and affirmative action programs, were simply “re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic”. These days, it’s difficult to maintain even “deck chair” progress. Who is making progress in shifting social policy? It certainly seems like the Koch brothers, tea party activists, and other “profit before all” proponents are doing a better job than advocates of a more just and equitable society.

Perhaps, It’s Understandable

Given this back-pedaling on social progress, it is imperative some institutions return to their mid-20th century roles of supporting and advancing real change agents and real change opportunities. Primary among these supportive institutions are private foundations, which by their own words, are independent operators in social, economic, educational, and cultural arenas.

Yet, these foundations which were critical to the early struggles for civil rights, economic development, neighborhood empowerment and the green movement, have moved onto safer fields – social  ventures and entrepreneurship, leadership development, social research, and other forms of self-contemplation.

Certainly, plenty of pressures drive this “stand back and observe” funding perspective. Extended government oversight, more conservative trustees, and social pressures from media and grantmaking peers discourage risk taking. Others say the philanthropoid takeover of foundation staffs and the marketing takeover of corporate giving are the biggest setbacks in community-supportive philanthropy.

Disappointment in what has not worked in the past and a lack of trust in what we don’t know may also drive this sit-back attitude. Regardless of who is responsible for these setbacks, we no longer have the luxury of self-examination, yearlong foundation sabbaticals, conventional wisdom, and finger pointing.

But Now…

It is time to move on, to take risks with new ideas, and to disengage from self-contemplation, intra-foundation engagement, and self-congratulations.

Six Ideas

  • Forget about leading the charge yourself; support others who have the skills and “street cred” to get more people to the meeting. When asked how the Catholic Church could help the poor, community organizer Saul Alinsky said, “Put a check on the table and leave.” Your involvement in projects is great; assuming the role of leader — maybe not so much.
  • Entertain ideas that aren’t in your blogs, grantee reports, and conference agendas. Spend half the time that you spend at conferences with troublemakers, instigators, and other people who may scare your trustees a little. Start funding people who can get you in trouble.
  • Reduce your focus on rubrics, measurement, and donor-centered management. Start thinking who and what can cause out-of-the-box change.
  • Help the poor with basic needs. However, remember one of these needs is self-empowerment.
  • Forget about funding only your friends, this is especially true for “social change” foundations that refuse to listen to ideas that they or their friends aren’t generating. Establish an old-fashioned, high-risk fund that will support and advocate for little-known instigators who can succeed beyond the confines of logic models.
  • Be open to proposals and ideas that aren’t in your funding priorities. Has rejecting unsolicited proposals really helped your foundation get closer to its vision for a better world?

None of these is a new idea. You may have heard them from blogs, philanthropy advocates, or perhaps even other grantmakers. Although they aren’t original, these ideas are worth remembering, and worth following.

The late Mayor of Chicago Richard J. Daley told us, “You have no excuses. Your behavior is your own”. Please, no more excuses and no more deck chairs.