Foundation Friday: A grant to give grants; plus, life after grantmaking

The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has just awarded the Nonprofit Finance Fund a big chunk of change to provide consulting services to a select group of arts organizations.  It’s clear why this is a good thing for the Nonprofit Finance Fund; it’s less clear why it’s a good thing for arts organizations.

The Nonprofiteer’s alarm bell goes off
whenever arts funding is diverted from arts groups to technical
assistance providers.  She served briefly as a consultant in the Arts & Business Council of Chicago’s SmartScope program, which put small and midsized arts organizations
through a process full of buzzwords and checklists and signifying nothing.  The money went from the funder (the Chicago Community Trust, as she recalls) to the ABC (which took a cut, as program administrator) to the
designer of the surveys and workbooks that constituted the consulting product (which group presumably also took a cut for the use of its copyrighted materials) to consultants selected to deliver the product (who also took a cut).  The arts groups got a presentation, and in the first year no money at all.  And they had to go through this whole rigmarole if they were to receive any money from this major funder in either of the following two years.

Disenchanted with the process (if one can be dis- without having been enchanted in the first place), the Nonprofiteer withdrew after her first consulting gig.  Apparently that client got something beneficial out of its experience, but she thought the entire program trivialized management challenges by reducing them to formulae and demeaned organizations by hog-tying and frog-marching them through a process they barely understood to get to money they desperately needed and couldn’t otherwise secure.

But–while we’re visiting the animal kingdom–here’s the deal: we’ve outlawed force-feeding ducks even though
it produces foie gras.  How about we outlaw force-feeding
consulting to nonprofits, at least until someone demonstrates that it in fact produces superior nourishment to allowing groups to decide what they’re hungry for, buy their own food and cook it to their own taste?  If we don’t think organizations have the
expertise to make that basic decision, it’s not clear why we’re funding them to
begin with.

The whole thing would strike the Nonprofiteer as hopelessly misguided if it didn’t have Ben Cameron’s imprimatur on it.  Cameron, now of the Duke Foundation, was an extremely impressive Executive Director of the Theatre Communications Group (trade group of the nation’s nonprofit theaters) while the Nonprofiteer was on that beat.  He’s smart and straightforward and ideas that appeal to him have generally had the bullshit wrung out of them.  On the other hand, if you’ve got an arts funder with that much horsepower, why pass the grantmaking decisions along to someone else?

On a lighter note:

This New York Times article documents life after foundations.  Those program officer alumni gatherings sound like a real riot, don’t they?–"Remember when we introduced bednets to Burundi?"  The Nonprofiteer more than ever regrets her failure to ascend the heights of institutional philanthropy. 


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2 Responses to “Foundation Friday: A grant to give grants; plus, life after grantmaking”

  1. Adam Says:

    I agree with you that Ben’s role in the Duke Foundation is one of the few things that makes this initiative seem like I may be something different that what arts orgs usually get.

    But on a slightly related matter, has anyone actually gone to the NFF’s website and actually read the information on the program.

    Their description of the program is incredibly dense, wordy and jargon filled. I always find that to be a bit annoying.

  2. Mark Kleiman Says:

    One note on your blog: foie gras comes from geese, not ducks.

    I’m with you on the $100k rule; nonprofits need to compete for talent. I keep reading what a scandal it is if a university president makes half as much as the football coach. When the squires who ran Parliament decided that the Church of England needed cutting down to size after the restoration, they made sure the clergy were underpaid. (The salary of the Archbishop of Canturbury in 1950 was the same, in nominal terms, as the salary of the Archbishop of Canturbury in 1660.) As a result, the Church lost power and influence compared to the squirearchy. Anything that challenges the dominance of the corporate class and its professional servants is good.

    What does seem to me like a scandal is the high salaries of foundation grant-makers; they ought to be the investment bankers of the nonprofit world, guaranteeing that the resources get allocated well and punishing outfits that waste money, but as far as I can tell they don’t. I think the Ford Foundation might perform better paying its grantmakers what journalists make.

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