Foundations are best poised to succeed when they take reasonable measures to advance their mission.
Tom Riley, president of the Connelly Foundation, was Jeremy’s latest guest on Givers, Doers, & Thinkers. The Connelly Foundation is a major grantmaking foundation in Philadelphia, granting primarily to Catholic, educational, and civic organizations in the Philadelphia region.
Tom exemplifies good philanthropy. As he explains during the podcast, he is deeply committed to preserving donor intent—the philanthropic goals of his grandparents—and to helping those in need in Philadelphia and the surrounding region, while strengthening civil society and the organizations that bolster it.
Speaking as one who has worked with Tom on grants several times, I’m pleased to report that he practices what he preaches when it comes to grantmaking. The Connelly Foundation grants locally, which Tom describes as a “huge benefit and a blessing.” In addition to this, and perhaps more importantly, the foundation operates on a human scale. They are personal and intimate with their grantees, eschewing both “metrics” and “complicated analyses.” They rely, instead, on personal knowledge and humility in grantmaking—a virtue which does not come easily to someone in the driver’s seat.
This reliance on personal knowledge isn’t an unscientific rejection of metrics and analyses but rather a recognition that such knowledge is, without exaggeration, “infinitely more knowledge” than inert numbers. How much more valuable it is, Tom suggests, to know the grantee herself than to study a set of numbers and reports that she shares.
Tom here recalls, for me, Jeremy’s earlier conversation with Alicia Manning of the Bradley Foundation. Like Alicia, Tom describes “a very large foundation that does international giving” that relies on site visits run by third parties who create elaborate reports and complicated metrics to evaluate grantees. They’re doing it, he says, “out of a sense of conscientiousness,” but in so doing they silo themselves off from grantees and thus limit the value of their grant, removing from the enterprise any connection to “the actual good that’s being done.”
In addition to this general emphasis on the value of philanthropy at a human scale, Tom has several tips for funders emerge throughout the conversation with Jeremy.
1. MISSION CLARITY
Your mission, first of all, should be written and accessible to potential grantees. Tom doesn’t say it explicitly in this conversation, but it’s implied: the veil of mystery that some foundations employ is to no one’s benefit.
Moreover, when your mission is written it should be simple and clear. He describes as ideal the mission statement from one foundation that reads, “We support nursing colleges in the state of New York.” Clear and simple, no room for ambiguity. So many foundations prepare these “poetic, inspirational” mission statements, accompanied by a “huge tome … the size of the Bible” to elaborate donor intent.
Such efforts are admirably earnest, of course, but all that poetry and inspiration introduces ambiguity, and with it two major problems: first of all, it means that staff and grantees can steer the organization off course over time. Second of all, it wastes everyone’s time. Staff have to read too many proposals from applicants who don’t fit the mission. Here’s Tom’s best insight: the mission should be falsifiable. Anyone should be able to read the mission statement and think “that’s me” or “that’s not me.” Too often fundraisers find themselves reading a mission statement and then squinting and turning their head sideways to see if they fit.
Prevent this scenario. Write a short, simple, practical mission statement that clearly tells potential grantees what it is you do. That’s hard enough to do.
2. PERSONNEL IS POLICY
Even a clear mission statement can be abused, and that’s why good staff are a sine qua non for preserving donor intent and advancing the donor’s values. If the staff aren’t aligned with the donor’s value, there’s “going to be friction all the time.”
Tom tells the story of the Daniels Fund which went off the rails despite Mr. Daniels’ clear vision and explicit values. After he passed away, the staff weren’t aligned with his values and they steered the foundation in the direction they wanted it to go—until Linda Childers, a friend of Mr. Daniels, took over as president. She righted the ship and worked hard to suffuse the organization with a “living presence” of Mr. Daniels’ values.
Today, the Daniels Fund is a flagship example of enduring donor intent—but “that really didn’t happen by accident that happened because somebody fought to make it happen.” Foundations must be entrusted to someone the donor knows and trusts, and must maintain a commitment, first and foremost, to hiring individuals who share the donor’s values, and, secondly, to persistently and intentionally infusing the donor’s values and character into the culture of the organization.
Even the best mission statement can suffer abuse at the hands of the wrong people.
3. LIMITED LIFESPAN
Jeremy asks Tom what he would recommend to a couple today who made a great deal of money that they wish to spend philanthropically. Should they start a foundation?
“I might do a foundation,” Tom says, “but I would super strongly recommend that it has a very specific, unavoidable spend down component. A limited lifespan.”
Why? Well, “perpetuity is a long time,” and “you can’t possibly anticipate what purposes it’s going to be spent on and who’s going to be spending it [500 years] from now.” In other words, over time, the preceding two tips will get more and more worn down. The mission statement—however clear and pithy it is—may not be applicable in the future, or it may have suffered any amount of distortion. And several decades or generations from now—who knows what the personnel will be like by then.
There’s no magic principle for when a foundation should sunset. It could be 5, 15, 100 years from now—that’s not the important point. What matters is that it is spent down. And what’s more: spending the money within a limited timeframe has the ability to do much more good for persons, communities, and organizations than it can sitting in an investment portfolio.
The bottom lines I took from this absorbing podcast: Know your grantees, concretely articulate your mission, choose your staff wisely, and spend that money down.