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No Moat Philanthropy Part 1: Opening Up  
October 2, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we are devoting our blog space all week to the series. This is the first post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedThere’s a famous philanthropy quote that defines foundations as “a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.”

There’s truth in this statement, and it can lead foundations to have a fortress mentality — building moats and barricades in the form of needle-eye guidelines or brick wall websites. The stronger our defenses, however, the more difficult it is to be exposed to enough ideas and engage with enough people to be truly effective.

Over the past five years at the Bush Foundation, we have worked actively against this fortress mentality, first by adopting a set of core operating values, that helped to fuel and shape what was to follow. We believe our efforts have made us smarter and more effective. Over the next five days I’ll describe what else we have done, in the form of Five Principles of No Moat Philanthropy:

“Being truly open to the ideas of others has made us smarter and more effective.”

Principle #1: Get excited about other people’s ideas

Five years ago, we operated initiatives focused on three specific goals. This approach posed some challenges, and in our pursuit of these goals, we became our own largest strategic constraint. Planning and executing the work at a pace to consume all of our payout was difficult. It was also difficult to be relevant in all corners of the region and to fund the best ideas without having ways to solicit and consider ideas that were not our own. Basically, we were only as smart as we were smart and only as effective as we were effective.

In the past five years, we have changed both our mindset and our processes to try to find the best possible ideas and to trust and invest in others to do the work. Specifically, we have worked to:

Do less. Enable more. The first thing we did was to ease our grip on controlling our funding. We adopted “do less, enable more” as a mantra to push ourselves to focus as much as possible on getting money out to community organizations. We cut the number of consultants we were directly managing to advance our agenda and redirected those funds to grants. Within one year, we increased the percentage of our payout that goes out in the form of grants from 64% to 75%.

Bush-altlogo-colorBalance the proactive with the responsive. We now invest about half of our grants in strategic initiatives that advance our Foundation priorities and about half in open grantmaking programs that allow us to fund people and communities to advance their own priorities. This balance allows us to use our power to proactively advance goals while also being available to respond to emerging challenges, encourage unexpected bursts of community momentum and support way-out-there new ideas. We believe these are some of the highest-return investments we can make.

Harness the power of open grant programs. We believe that traditional open grantmaking can be every bit as powerful and strategic as ambitious, proactive initiatives if done thoughtfully and well. We now have four standing open grant programs: community innovation grants, the Bush Prize, event sponsorships and ecosystem grants. We also have used one-off open processes four times as we learn about a particular issue or approach. These open programs allow us to engage with lots of organizations on lots of issues across lots of communities, helping us to stay informed and relevant on regional issues. As a learning tool, our one-off grant programs allow us to quickly understand the players and the various approaches in a particular issue area across the entire region we serve. Participating organizations have a better opportunity to showcase their work and compete on a level playing field for funding. Between 2012 and 2016, the amount of our funding that was awarded through some sort of competitive process increased from 8 percent to 72 percent.

Commit to followership. Five years ago, the goals of our initiatives were so specific and our tactics so defined that we were unable to collaborate easily with others. We established “willingness to follow” as a principle within our operating values, and to make this easier, we created a President’s Partnership and Innovation Fund that allows us to contribute to collaborative funder efforts, even when not in our focus areas. Within our focus areas, we now have an explicit principle to be open to “adjacent” investments when there is collaborative energy.

We believe that being truly open to the ideas of others has made us smarter and more effective.  Tomorrow I’ll share what we have done to bring more and different perspectives into our program strategy and our grantmaking.

To be continued... 

--Jen Ford Reedy

 

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A saltier version of that quote about philanthropy comes from Yusef Mgeni, who likes to say that foundations are “just a huge pile of money surrounded by sucking noises.”

“No Moat Philanthropy” is a commendable goal. The moat metaphor for foundation interactions with the public no doubt strikes a chord with many on both sides of these transactions, for several good reasons.

For example, a frequently described benefit of holding exclusive foundation conferences is the need for a “safe place” to have frank conversations with colleagues (without worrying about being wheedled for support from outsiders). Over time, the comforts of the walled city approach increase in attractiveness, along with the temptations of devoting time to taskforces, affinity group meetings, high-level conversations, long-range planning and almost anything but office hours to meet with the very people with a potential project the foundation is formed to support. (To its credit, the Bush Foundation now carves out time and space for these public interactions – worth copying.)

Few fields are better supported by the meeting and travel industry than foundations, along with almost unlimited opportunities and invitations for enrichment, peer exchange and industry confabs. Perhaps an equal problem to the size of the moat is that so much of philanthropy’s time is expended in self-improvement and discovery. It’s hard to be permeable if you’re not available for contact. When it can take three months out to schedule a phone conversation, clearly someone is too busy to interact in real-time.

One contribution to clearing the air (and in the interim to create a better view over the moat) is the new website GrantAdvisor.org – which crowdsources anonymous reviews and ratings on U.S. foundations. By making feedback public, along with responses from the foundations, GrantAdvisor makes visible multiple perspectives on these interactions. Like travelers using TripAdvisor, if you’ve never been on the other side of the moat, it’s useful to know what others have experienced there before you go….

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