Words of one syllable department

What leaped out at the Nonprofiteer from Sunday’s New York Times column about the need to create different measures for nonprofit results than for for-profit results (query whether saying everything over and over and over and over and over and over and over again until it’s nothing more than a dull roar of nonsense is original to our sector or borrowed from theirs):

A majority of foundation leaders polled in the studies acknowledged
that unrestricted operating funds were better and more effective for
grantees. But they continue to focus their grant-making on project
support, they said, because they prefer its clear-cut results and
because their boards often mandate project support as a way to show a
foundation’s prominence in a specific funding area.

Translation: We only appear to be in the business of helping operating charities solve problems.  Our actual business is burnishing our founder’s image so you think of how he succors widows and orphans rather than how he creates them.

Really, there’s no insult the Left could muster to describe huge concentrations of private money that wouldn’t be dwarfed by the disgraceful actions of the people ostensibly in charge of giving those funds away.   

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6 Responses to “Words of one syllable department”

  1. Anita Bernstein Says:

    But if these foundation executives did as you said, couldn’t another critic say that they were just shoveling cash they didn’t earn to their golf buddies and college roommates without demanding accountability? I agree with you that what we have is pretty deplorable, but I don’t think it’ll change until some transparent rules or norms emerge to favor unrestricted yet principled transfers.

  2. Jeane Goforth Says:

    Ignorance is bliss. All these years I’ve been giving my pittance to charities without realizing how it all worked. Now that I have created my own and am researching the industry, I am dismayed by what I am finding out. Integrity is the ultimate foundation of our organization, but how much time should we spend demonstrating that to potential donors rather than performing our mission? So far, the vote has been for as little as possible–preferably none. Everyone wants to let our actions speak for us. But will the message be delivered or received?

  3. Nonprofiteer Says:

    “Unrestricted yet principled transfers” are exactly what I’m promoting. If a foundation’s mission is to support early childhood education, it’s perfectly transparent and appropriate for it to provide general operating support to charities with a track record of providing early childhood education; it’s not necessary or appropriate for the foundation to tell those charities “You can only use this money for classroom supplies and testing, not for paying teachers or your light bill.” If a foundation can’t defend its choice of recipients, it should face public criticism of how it distributes its funds; but if it can, it shouldn’t have to pretend–nor should recipient charities–that somehow services can be provided without personnel, heat or light.

  4. Nonprofiteer Says:

    “How much time should we spend demonstrating [integrity]”? Well, all of it. In the real world, most charities get support from a relatively small group of donors, beginning with their Boards of Directors, to whom their operations are an open book. Nothing special needs to occur to demonstrate integrity: your orchestra performs quality music, or your preschool keeps its pupils safe and happy, in either case in physical facilities that are safe and clean but not luxurious. For the most part, that’s the end of the fundraising story, as it should be.

    Something more exotic is only relevant/necessary if you’re a huge charity with complicated programs and budgets (in which case, for the most part, you’ll also be a government contractor with all the oversight that entails) or if a new donor comes along who wants to make a huge gift–by which I mean a gift that would add 10% or more to your overall budget. At that point, you say to the donor, “What do you want to know about us?” and answer the questions s/he asks, while gently steering those questions toward what really matters (“What we do, and for whom, and the consequences thereof”) and away from what really doesn’t (“Would it be possible to save money by securing violins made from reused milk cartons?”).

    Evaluation is important, but let’s not lose perspective, here. If you know what you’re doing, and that it’s important, and why, other people will see it your way. Not all other people, but enough.

  5. Rick Cohen Says:

    Dear Nonprofiteer: Your one-syllable commentary spoke volumes, well done! It made me recall some of the research on conservative philanthropy done at NCRP some years ago. Conservative foundations, big and small, paid out (in grants) more generously than their “liberal” or mainstream counterparts, and they were much more generous with unrestricted grants (a very interesting comparison of selected “conservative” and “liberal” advocacy organizations, comparing their restricted vs. unrestricted resources, made that point clear. At a meeting in NYC on core support grantmaking, where mainstream funders struggled over how to convince themselves to do the core support grantmaking that they all knew was the right thing to do, they turned to a former exec of a conservative foundation in the room and asked how conservative foundations did it. He looked a little perplexed with the sturm und drang of the discussion and said something to the effect that we find groups that share our values and give them the money to do their work, we don’t tie their hands. He was then challenged on how he knew that the groups were doing good work and having impact, and he responded, we look around and see what they’re doing. When asked about communicating the value of the foundation’s work, he suggested that the foundation thought it was more important for the grantees to tell their story rather than putting money into the foundation’s operations for their own purposes. It was an interesting discussion, primarily because he didn’t appear to feel the need to control his grantees. Maybe his conservative foundation was an anomaly, but my examination of its grantmaking over the years has been that it has supported successful and pragmatic institution-building, and part of that formula toward that has been pretty consistent provision of unrestricted grant support.

  6. Nonprofiteer Says:

    Thanks, as always, for the historical perspective. You may have said the magic (multi-syllable) words: “institution building.” If mainstream foundations (by which I mean those dedicated to something other than building a permanent Republican majority) could conceive of themselves as builders of simpatico institutions rather than merely preservers of their own, we might make some progress in the fight for social justice.

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