In her last public act before retirement, Valerie S. Lies, the long-time president and CEO of the Donors Forum in Chicago, took the opportunity to speak truth to power and to leave the field that she so loves with several calls for action. I share a summary of her remarks here in the hope that these candid observations from such a respected leader will spark some reflections among those of us still active in philanthropy. Based on what she said, included below are some questions to contemplate at a future team meeting or while having a drink with a colleague.
Fund what nonprofits need most. Valerie echoed a call to action that Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and others have frequently issued: Funders should prioritize general operating support, multiyear support and funding the full direct and indirect costs of programmatic grants. A great deal of evidence reinforces the fact that not only do nonprofits need this kind of support to succeed, but also that restrictive, short-term funding can actually harm the financial health of grantees. What would your highest-performing grantees do if they had flexible, reliable support? How might you best start the conversation at your foundation about the type of funding nonprofits need most?
Abandon "command and control" philanthropy. Valerie took aim at the preoccupation with and misuse of theories of change, logic models and metrics that force nonprofits to impose linearity on work that is not conducive to such an approach. Quoting Jim Canales, the president and CEO of the Barr Foundation in Boston, Lies suggested that "philanthropy at its core should be about inquiry and curiosity, not sureness and rigidity." What is the highest and best use of tools such as logic model and theories of change and when might they not be the right tools for the circumstances?
Prioritize diversity and inclusion. As a co-founder of the organization that later became Women and Philanthropy, Valerie helped advance increases in gender equality in our field. Yet, though women now play a more prominent role in philanthropy, she noted the lack of ethnic and cultural diversity, without which our sector will not reach its full potential. Similarly, she observed that until nonprofits and foundations come together to address issues that are bigger than any one of the organization's ability to solve, we won't perform at our peak potential. Does your foundation's senior leadership and board reflect the rich diversity of the communities it serves? How have you worked to make sure that all the people affected by the issues you're working on have a voice in decision-making?
Lead with humility. Quoting Ken Brecher, president of the Library Foundation of LA, who spoke at GEO's March conference, Valerie decried the arrogance that is so prevalent in philanthropy and made the case for the importance of humility: "What I worry about in our field is the degree to which I find honest arrogance and fake humility." Have you observed instances of honest arrogance or fake humility? What, if any, consequences did that have on the foundation's relationship with its grantees and communities?
With Valerie's wise words in mind, my question for you is this: If you had the opportunity to issue a call to action to our field, what would your recommendations be?
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