I remember my sense of anticipation some 18 years ago when I landed my first foundation job. None of my friends or colleagues had any inkling what happened inside these black boxes that consistently swallowed our proposals and issued polite rejections.
I had heard that foundations were about social change, that they were about marshaling private capital for the public good. I was excited by the idea of working with colleagues who had the time to think deeply about our community’s greatest challenges, who were not constantly passing the hat to pay the light bill.
My first day on the job, I met former activists who knew what it was like to grow up black and poor; I admired the view from my 28th story window of the city I loved. On my second day, I chided myself for my overly romantic idealizations of foundation work. Of course sexism, careerism, and other isms could exist here as elsewhere. But still, foundations were anointed institutions, set apart to serve as the conscience of the community. On my third day I was wondering what I had gotten myself into.
If my idealizations were so far off the mark, what then was a foundation supposed to be about?
One reader of a recent post commented thoughtfully about the purpose and identity of community foundations:
… [S]hould philanthropy uphold or challenge the status quo? I've always seen the role and purpose of [community foundations] as being one of brokerage between the two positions. We stand of necessity with a foot in both camps, and it is our specific function to interpret each side to the other and make them intelligible. A [community foundation] that plants itself squarely on one side or the other will betray its mission. … We serve mutually incompatible constituencies—proponents of social change vs upholders of the status quo. All over the world, I suspect, people in [community foundations] are deliberately muddying waters in order to satisfy both at once. It’s what we’re good at, and if we leaned too far in either direction we’d stop being [community foundations] and become something else.
So beautifully expressed. I immediately begin to wonder about the apparent cold-bloodedness of our hypothetical translator. Was he supposed to have no feelings one way or the other about what he was asked to interpret, and if so, why did he bother? Did he interpret ultimately for the sake of a paycheck or for the sake of justice? And did it matter?
It’s not only community foundations that struggle to keep one foot in two camps, to broker between the lived experience of poverty, say, and the privileged world of trustees. Small and large private foundations struggle with this as well, as does every nonprofit intent on survival. Can an organization interpret the world to everything and everyone except itself?
Perhaps a community foundation ceases to be a community foundation not when it sides with justice, but when it fails to understand what living in community requires of us. Perhaps any foundation or charity betrays its purpose, its identity, when corporate thinking completely replaces moral imagination.
I expect many observers of the nonprofit field have grown tired of arguments that pit values like efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability against more liberal values like adaptability, empathy, and justice. Organizations that embody the latter need a nonprofit chiropractor to straighten their spines, the argument goes; their stiff-necked corporatist cousins need to work on their flexibility. Those who make these arguments typically come to the triumphant conclusion that we need both kinds of thinking in our field.
Some go further and remind us that the distinction between nonprofit and for-profit, while still relevant to the Internal Revenue Service, has lost its meaning for a new generation of social entrepreneurs who have learned to think outside the IRS’s checkboxes. They argue that there’s a growing sector agnosticism in our field, and that it’s only a matter of time before the distinction between nonprofit and for-profit goes the way of the 8-track tape. They point to the jobs made possible by for-profit companies, to the services they provide and the products they create, and they ask, “Is this not also a kind of social value?”
In our headlong rush to let everything be everything, to embrace blended corporations and the like, it’s important to call to mind some values that cannot be so easily “blended.” Consider one of the stories currently in circulation about Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple.