It was a treat this week for MCF and our members to host a conversation with Phil Buchanan, president of the The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP).
Our exchange was energetic, provocative, fun and sometimes funny. I was struck by how often we circled back to core concepts and philanthropic fundamentals.
The discussion aligned serendipitously with MCF’s Principles for Grantmakers. Here are a few snippets that illustrate the challenges — and opportunities — of putting principles into practice.
According to MCF’s Effective Governance Principle, grantmakers are expected to be good stewards of assets, to fulfill donor intent, to make sound decisions and to perform all fiduciary responsibilities.
Buchanan called for foundation boards to govern effectively by not rubber stamping staff members’ grant recommendations. “If the board is approving every grant, they’re not taking time to see what it all adds up to and they’re not asking the hard questions.”
And he challenged foundation CEOs to practice “radical openness” with their boards – i.e., to say everything they’re thinking and to spark “messy conversations.” Good governance doesn’t emerge from perfectly scripted board meetings at which “the most spontaneous thing that happens is when someone gets up to get a cup of coffee.” (Yes, it’s okay to laugh at ourselves.)
The MCF Engaged Learning Principle calls for continuous learning and reflection by engaging board members, staff, grantees and donors in thoughtful dialogue and education.
Of course, learning and continuous improvement through performance assessment is at the heart of CEP’s mission. (Buchanan readily acknowledged that he is not the expert in philanthropy . . . and he cautioned us to be wary of those who say they are.)
Because philanthropy is “wicked tough,” funding programs on theory alone is not enough. It’s vital that grantmakers establish performance indicators and are data driven.
And they sometimes need to follow, not lead. By replicating proven programs, foundations can learn from others and succeed. (For more on shared goals, read Buchanan’s opinion piece in this week’s Chronicle of Philanthropy.)
Through MCF’s Transparency Principle grantmakers strive to build healthy relationships with the public, applicants, grantees and donors by using clear, consistent and timely communications.
Being transparent includes sharing the so-called “failures.” (Our host Kate Wolford of The McKnight Foundation noted that we might be more apt to learn from our missteps by reframing them in more positive, multi-dimensional terms.)
Buchanan reported that it’s up to foundations to share the results of CEP assessments. Some don’t share at all, some partially share with grantees (and sometimes add a positive spin!), and some share widely, warts and all.
He noted that foundations that are truly transparent are viewed as trustworthy and credible. For example, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is fully committed to evaluation and transparency, making it all the stronger.
Cynics may say that foundations don’t need to be accountable to anybody. But as Buchanan reminded everyone, if grantmakers aren’t honest and don’t cultivate positive relationships with their grantees, how can they obtain the candid information they need to improve philanthropy . . . and improve lives?
More to Come
Keep watching our Philanthropy Potluck Blog for future postings about philanthropic effectiveness, including video conversations with MCF President Trista Harris, Buchanan and other big thinkers.
Like our grantmaker members, MCF is committed to hosting robust conversations within and across sectors . . . because leadership for the 21st century requires honest, provocative discussion.
— Wendy Wehr, MCF vice president of communications and information services