You would think, given all the ballyhoo over the importation into philanthropy of for-profit business models, that the foundation world is crawling with MBAs. It’s not. Ask a roomful of philanthropoids about their academic bona fides and you’ll find that many have backgrounds in the liberal arts, in law, in the sciences, or in nothing in particular. This is a healthy thing for a field still searching for its soul.
You’ll also find that younger people in the field have hidden their undergraduate degrees in their sock drawers, haunted, perhaps, by the memory of some infelicitous essay on Plato’s Republic.
Let it go! Let it go, I say! Our first inklings of a world beyond that described to us by our parents have extraordinary value. The exhilaration we felt at being invited to question authority can still save our field from grave errors.
Let’s reclaim those tens of thousands of dollars we suspect were wasted on our college educations. Our parents still love us. They’re proud of their son or daughter who’s now gainfully employed, doing something “having to do with irrigation, I think,” as my own mother—God rest her soul—once described it. The nonprofit world needs fresh thinking, mired as it is in the corporatist nescience that currently passes for wisdom.
If you majored in Cultural Anthropology …
We need you most of all. Perhaps you’ll write the first ethnography of organized philanthropy, describing its rigid hierarchies and the fabric of myths that support its delusional over-estimation of the foundation’s contributions to human progress.
If, in your quest for truth, you find yourself quailing—take heart! You have a colleague who blazed the trail: Joel Orosz, founder of the The Grantmaking School, who published an extraordinary proto-ethnography of the foundation world titled, Effective Foundation Management: 14 Challenges of Philanthropic Leadership—And How to Outfox Them. What made it extraordinary was Orosz’s willingness to speak with candor about the culture of a field that “lacks a salutary external discipline.”
What Dr. Orosz wrote on the subject of foundation risk-taking is especially revealing. If foundations have the freedom to try pretty much anything to address society’s problems, he asserts, “it would be virtually impossible to open a newspaper without reading of a groundbreaking social experiment fueled by their funding.”
It’s true that foundations as a class are not very good at communicating their good work or its importance. But according to Dr. Orosz, the appearance of ineffectiveness does not deceive us. There is a hidden reason for the inability of many foundations to address our most pressing social problems, and that reason is embarrassment. According to him:
Since foundations are undisciplined by the market, electorate, or funders, their only impetus for improvement comes from their (generally) self-perpetuating board of trustees. If you are a foundation leader, your imperative thus is a simple one: keep the board happy, and you will keep your job. So, what makes a board happy? The answer is easy: pride-inducing success. What makes a board unhappy? The answer is equally easy: embarrassing failure. What does this mean for the CEO? As a practical matter, the answer to this question is also very simple: since any kind of success is preferable to any kind of failure, since embarrassing the board members is to be avoided at all costs, it is critically important that every project be a success. What is the best way to ensure that every project will be a success? The key to perpetual success is to keep every project uncomplicated and modest in its ambition. Thus, inexorably, in order to keep their boards happy, in order to assure that embarrassment never darkens the trustees’ doorsteps, CEOs tend to seek the cautious and incremental success. Paradoxically, the societal organization given the most freedom to act hobbles itself; it is as if a superb French chef, capable of creating any gastronomic delight, insisted on making nothing except the blandest of oatmeal.
The problem is one of foundation culture. It’s culture all the way down, argues Orosz. Culture that kills strategy. Culture that imposes a kind of omertà on grantmakers, keeping them from shouting these truths from the rooftops: “We are guilty of small ambitions! We live in morbid fear of losing our prized sinecures!”
Only you dedicated students of anthropology can unravel this tangled ball of cultural yarn and put us on the right track. Consider wearing muted colors and sensible shoes so you can mix freely among us natives.
If you majored in Behavioral Economics …
You know the score. You’re hep to the homo economicus jive. So many decision-making models imported from the world of business and finance attempting to exploit the predictability of human actors. The ideal foundation executive, according to one prominent prototype, posits this predictability to develop highly articulated theories of change and assign Bayesian probabilities and financial payoffs to possible outcomes, transforming complex sociological problems into straightforward utility calculations. The technical term for this, I believe, is “pure baloney.”
Dan Ariely popularized the field of behavioral economics when he wrote the book Predictably Irrational, which a New York Times reviewer described as a “far more revolutionary book than its unthreatening manner lets on.” The book, according to this reviewer, is “a concise summary of why today’s social science increasingly treats the markets-know-best model as a fairy tale.”
Fortunately for us, you behavioral economists don’t believe in fairy tales! You know how perfectly chaotic our species can be. It’s time for you to insinuate yourselves into one of those three-person panels our field produces in such prodigious numbers and set the record straight. As if to prove your point, defy audience expectations by wearing Groucho glasses and a light-up bowtie.
If you majored in Linguistic Forensics …
The tools of your trade can help elucidate the innermost workings, the nefarious tics and obsessions, of the Philanthropoid Mind! [music sting]
An article in the July 23, 2012, issue of the New Yorker article titled “Words on Trial” recounts the story of James Fitzgerald, the retired FBI forensic linguist who brought the field to prominence by helping to solve the Unabomber case. He cracked the case by noticing stylistic similarities between Ted Kaczynski’s manifesto and the language of hundreds of documents seized by FBI agents while searching Kaczynski’s hut.
Think about the tortured diction of our field: drill down, impactful, vulnerable population, target audience.
What are we trying to hide behind that thick impasto of verbiage tinged with violence? What insecurities are revealed by the fact that we are always “meeting around issues of diversity,” to take one example, rather than meeting simply to discuss diversity? There’s a story here and I suspect it isn’t pretty.
So, my friends, proudly use your specialized knowledge to expose the piffle that currently dominates our field. Brandish your calculators, your close readings, your foam core models like billy clubs. As the past twenty years have demonstrated, no idea is so feeble, so absurd, or so incidental to our field that it can’t become a topic of animated water cooler discussion in the arid plain of Organized Philanthropy. Soon, perhaps, I’ll have the Big Data to prove it.