... about foundations, with apologies to Martin Luther:
- The foundation world is filled with many people of good will who desire through their work to advance the common good. Many have in fact succeeded.
- Taken together, however, the collective actions of foundations have failed to address, in any significant way, some of the most basic injustices in our society. After decades of work, foundations have failed to alter the basic condition of the poor in the United States. The gap between the rich and poor has widened in recent years. Individuals can work hard all their lives, manage their finances prudently, and still fail to have income security in their retirement. Racism, homophobia, and other forms of bigotry still affect the destinies of whole communities of people. Millions of people lack access to quality health care. Urban public schools do not provide a world class education to our children. Because of lax lobbying and campaign finance laws, politicians and elections are routinely bought and sold. Our economic prosperity is still tied to the ongoing degradation of our environment.
- With few exceptions, if we were to examine the histories of some of the great social advances in our country—the winning of women’s suffrage, the ending of Jim Crow—we’d see that foundations had played a minor role at best. In spite of the resources, independence, and power available to them, the effect of foundations on the common good has been embarrassingly marginal. The claim that organized philanthropy is more effective than simple charity needs to be challenged and may be, as some have claimed, largely a fiction.
- Some liberal foundations have made strides in asserting and supporting the rights of individuals in marginalized communities, but they have been almost completely silent on the subject of our responsibilities as citizens. We see this asymmetry in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One has to read through to Article 29, the second-to-last article of the Declaration, to discover that we have duties to the community “in which alone the free and full development of [our personalities] is possible.” Twenty-eight articles detailing our rights. One article alluding to unspecified responsibilities.
- Foundations and their staffs often lack a sense of urgency about the challenges facing marginalized communities.
- Unlike academic disciplines, foundation work lacks a tradition of vigorous debate and self-criticism. Because of this, our most bone-headed beliefs and practices go unchallenged. This is one of the great failings of our field.
- Just as the unexamined life is not worth living, the unexamined profession is not worth pursuing. But most of us who work at foundations—especially those of us who lead foundations—fail to ask the most fundamental questions about our work: What does human flourishing look like? What is my vision of the Good? What’s our responsibility to one another in a complex, industrial society? How much suffering at "the bottom" should a community tolerate if the overall statistics look pretty good? What is the role of a foundation in society? etc.
- The positive aspects of foundation culture are significant. These include an immense pool of talent, a commitment to those who are least well off, a respect for the work of nonprofit leaders, and a desire to make a positive difference in the world. There have been and there continue to be many "great souls" in the world of organized philanthropy.
- The negative aspects of foundation culture are also significant and tend to go largely unaddressed. These negative aspects include the following:
Foundations are generally averse to collaboration, even though collaboration is essential for making progress on difficult issues such as poverty, universal access to quality health care, etc. There are a number of reasons for this aversion, including the desire to claim bragging rights for this or that piece of work. In the United States, this one failing perhaps above all others has had enormous negative repercussions for people in low-income communities.
Foundations are notoriously risk averse. The psychology of this phenomenon was brilliantly explored by Joel Orosz in his book Effective Foundation Management: 14 Challenges of Philanthropic Leadership—And How to Outfox Them.
Foundations and their staffs are subject to the same forces that beguile us all: consumerism, careerism, a lack of media literacy, etc.
Foundations frequently fall prey to the Cult of the New.
Foundations sometimes succumb to the Cult of Personality—a strong leader who makes his or her pet peeves, prejudices, fears, aversions, moods, etc. the measure of all things.
- Because those of us who work at foundations are largely unaware of the history of our field, we frequently reinvent the wheel. We pay far too little heed to what has already been attempted, and to whether and why it has succeeded or failed. This in spite of the fact that there are resources available to help us overcome our professional amnesia.
- There is a clear difference between bad, good, and inspired grantmaking. The distinction between bad, good, and inspired grantmaking can be taught (but rarely is).
- Foundations generally do not know how to relate to the people and communities they aim to serve. This relationship tends to range from command and control to benign neglect.
- Evaluation is our friend, not our enemy. Unfortunately, it’s often used as a blunt weapon against grantees. Worries about evaluation have become the math anxiety of philanthropy.
- The language foundations use to describe their work is frequently tortured and moribund. More often than not, foundations fail to communicate effectively the good they’ve able to accomplish.
- There will typically be more problems (and solutions) around the table, than there are on the table.
- There can be no significant social change without systemic change.
- At the same time, we must be careful to avoid the Systems Heresy: the idea that fair institutional structures and a fair enforcement of laws will inevitably produce fair outcomes.
- We must also be careful to avoid the Gadgets Heresy: the idea that new tools—new social media sites, B corporations, more "efficient markets," etc.—will save us from ourselves. Our greatest progress will come not from chasing the latest Shiny New Object, but from attending to the field’s moral and intellectual failings.
- The social entrepreneurship movement is important and worthy of support. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that there is important work a civilized people must do that will forever require subsidy either through public tax dollars or private donations. If it really were possible for a business-minded individual to turn a profit by providing health care to the penniless, it would have happened long ago. The not-for-profit status of organizations that provide services to the indigent reflects not a failure of entrepreneurial imagination or will, but rather a sober assessment of what people value enough to pay for freely.
- We will forever knock our heads against some of our society’s most intractable problems and make little progress addressing them as long as we ignore their social justice dimensions. It’s absurd to believe that we can effectively address the challenges faced by low-income communities, for example, by ignoring the effects of race and class or by side-stepping issues of power and privilege.
- Teach a man to fish, certainly. But also ask why so few people in this man’s community can afford to own a fishing pole; why the county incinerator is being sited in his neighborhood, befouling his pond rather than that of his wealthier townsmen; and why he’s being taught to fish when he’s more likely to earn a living wage as an accountant or an engineer.
- Most foundation work is transactional rather than transformational. To borrow a phase from Nietzsche, its very meanness cries to heaven.
- Philanthropy is and should be primarily a moral rather than a technocratic tradition. This doesn’t absolve foundation professionals from using all the knowledge and resources available to them to make their grantmaking better along every possible dimension—spiritual, technical, and otherwise.
- There is currently a great battle on for the soul of philanthropy. We oppose "technocrats" to "social justice grantmakers," "liberals" to "conservatives." But these are skirmishes on the edge of a larger battle about the role each of us will play in either contributing to or subtracting from the common good. What will future generations say about us, about our engagement as citizens, our stewardship of the planet, our ability to defend the common good against the ravages of narrow interests? I believe my own ears would burn with shame. We’ve left future generations one hell of a mess.
- Insert your own 25th thesis here (or in the comments below).