Not a Joke: Foundations That Abuse Their Superpower, Convening

Mark Rosenman’s new report Caring to Change reminded me of my own scattered but at times impassioned critique of foundation practice.

No matter how honorable the program officers, the inherent power difference between funders and nonprofits must be openly acknowledged by professionals on both sides of the funding line.

Pretending it doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t matter is beyond naïve, it inhibits truth-telling, it stunts innovation, it restricts the flow of important information. And surely that slows our ability to make meaningful change in the world.

Another critique is to note the positive and negative of the special power they have for “convening.”

No doubt, the power of money draws people in. What nonprofit professional more experienced than a 6-month intern doesn’t know this rule: if you need people to come to a meeting, let them know a foundation officer will be there. This can be a really useful strategy—to bring people together who otherwise might not know about each other’s work or take time out to compare notes or discover some ways to amplify each other’s efforts. No joke.

But have you heard the one about the high profile foundation that invited a national mix of Native leaders to come to a weekend retreat to advise them on design and development of a program to promote indigenous small business creation? Vigorous debate all morning. But at lunch, they unveil the previously and fully-formed program. It’s not funny, of course. And even less so, when I recall that a few months after I heard that “joke,” I heard a similar one about the same foundation from a group of women business owners.