Daring to Think

In Daring to Lead 2006, a recent survey of nonprofit executive directors, the respondents’ two biggest complaints were that their Board of Directors don’t understand their (the Board’s) role, and that the funders won’t give multiyear or operating support.  The authors’ recommendation in response: additional training for the executive directors.

This, as Miss Adelaide laments in Guys & Dolls, means that "the medicine never gets anywhere near where the trouble is."  Why not train the Boards of Directors instead?  Surely if the grantmakers who commissioned the study put their heads together, they could come up with some Board-training templates, a fund to make them widely and freely available, and incentives to Board members and agencies for using them.  How ’bout it?

The question of operating support is a bit more difficult.  Charities have been begging for years for general support instead of program support, and foundations have been turning a deaf ear that entire time.  That’s because charities are in the business of palliating suffering, while philanthropies believe themselves to be in the business of curing it.  Foundation X wants to make a difference, so its program officers have to be able to show its Board of Directors (which also doesn’t understand its role, but that’s another story) some new approach to conquering poverty, eradicating polio, or performing Shakespeare.  The day-to-day costs of conquering, eradicating or performing is someone else’s department–probably the government’s.  As a foundation officer said to me unblushingly, "We’re not interested in tossing money into an endless bucket of need."

Okay; but then two things follow.  First, if it is the government’s job to pay for the day-to-day work of charities (and it may well be), foundations should be pressing the government to actually do it, instead of using all their Washington time protecting their endowments from the depredations of the IRS.  Second, surely if the grantmakers who commissioned Daring to Lead put their heads together with those who dare, they could come up with some common ground, some way to give the charities what they need while providing the philanthropies with what they want.  How ’bout it?–a charity-philanthropy summit on the operating expenses question?  If the Blackstone Rangers and the Physco [sic] Gang could bury the hatchet (and not in each other’s backs), maybe we could do the same.

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