THE BLOG
04/19/2014 08:40 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2014

What's Love Got to Do With It?

The Tuesday plenary session at GEO's 2014 National Conference explored the intersection of values and actions in grantmaking.
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Years after David Packard's death, his daughters, who were serving on the David and Lucile Packard Foundation board at the time, were asked by then foundation President Cole Wilbur to make a presentation to the staff about the values of the foundation. The board had never specifically articulated the foundation's values. The sisters prepared independently and yet arrived at nearly the exact same list, a list that contained values that their parents personified and were inherent to the company that David Packard founded. These values included integrity, respect for all people and a belief in individual leadership. It was a transformative moment.

Carol Larson, president and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, relayed this story at the recent Grantmakers for Effective Organizations' conference in Los Angeles in a plenary session focused on the importance of tending to the values that underlie the work of philanthropy. During the session, I was struck by a question from Curtis Ogden of Interaction Institute for Social Change which boiled down to "What's love got to do with it?" As it turns out, when making a connection between values and practices, love can play a central role.

GEO focuses on how grantmakers can make changes in their own work to help nonprofits achieve more in communities. Over time it has become clear that many common practices in philanthropy conflict with the values that some of those same grantmakers claim to hold dear. At the same time, when we look carefully at those grantmakers whose practices are in-line with what their grantees need most, we find that how they do their work is a direct result of the values embedded in their organizational culture.

Sparked by this insight and a frustration with the pace of progress in our field, GEO has been exploring how productive change happens in philanthropy. The connection between values and practice has been an important theme in our conversations with field leaders and gatherings of CEOs as we have attempted to get a more sophisticated understanding of what it takes to lead positive change.

Values come to life when they are concrete and visible in our day-to-day work. For example, to reinforce values-aligned behaviors among staff, Packard gives the Golden Apricot award (named for the many apricot trees that grow on the Packard family estate) to a staff person who embodies one of the values of the foundation. Recipients keep the award on their desk for two months, until it is passed along to another deserving colleague.

We have heard from philanthropic leaders that living a set of core values starts with who you hire and how they are prepared for their roles. At Packard, values are used as a screening criterion for candidates and are expressly discussed during the employee orientation process. According to Larson, the employees that don't last long at Packard are those who fail to treat grantees and community members with appropriate respect, which is in direct conflict with their value of respect for all people.

Larson acknowledged that "any good set of values also points out your flaws, where you can improve." A few years back, an anonymous staff survey revealed that some Packard employees felt that they didn't have enough access to Carol and senior management and that they weren't truly being heard. This feedback led to a deeper internal conversation about tending to the foundation's values in its own management and operation, and the recognition that nurturing core values is a job that's never done.

Rev. Starsky Wilson, president and CEO of the Deaconess Foundation in St. Louis, Mo., believes that the foundation's origins in the United Church of Christ enhance the connection to important values, including the value of justice. At the GEO conference, Wilson paraphrased Cornel West in saying that "Justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public." For Wilson and the Deaconess Foundation this has meant actions such as the foundation rededicating itself to transparency, including making it clear how to access all the funds at the foundation, such as discretionary dollars that previously weren't publicized.

A value that has come up repeatedly in conversations with foundation leaders is humility. Julie Rogers of the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation reminded the GEO audience at the plenary session that: "It's not about us; it's about the work in community that we are in the privileged position to support." She also observed that it's hard to practice humility in a field where grantmakers have the power and the money, and nonprofits find themselves in the position of supplicants.

"There's a tilt toward arrogance in our field that we need to guard against," Rogers said. One way the Meyer Foundation guards against arrogance is by hiring staff members and recruiting board members with significant nonprofit experience. That practice has enabled a built-in empathy for those they support.

At the GEO conference, Rogers spoke of the passion many nonprofit leaders exhibit and the sacrifices they make, noting how some leaders are literally making themselves sick trying to do their jobs. Rogers has been known to say that she is "obsessed with the well-being of nonprofit executives," and at the conference she acknowledged loving the nonprofit executives that the Meyer Foundation supports (some more than others was her humorous aside).This depth of caring leads her and her colleagues at the Meyer Foundation to honor, lift up and profile grantees' work above Meyer's own.

In answer to the question "What's love got to do with it?," I will avoid stating the obvious (that, after all, the Latin root of philanthropy is love of mankind) and instead say this: A true commitment to values such as humility, service, justice and integrity will lead to practices that will provide nonprofit leaders with the support -- even love -- that they need to continue to do incredibly hard jobs well.

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