The news in the philanthropy world this week is not good. It seems that our fears about the effect of the economic downturn on philanthropy are being confirmed in spades. The Ford Foundation and Robert Wood Johnson Foundations, two of the largest in the country, are both reducing their staffs by 30%+ and making other cuts in expenses in order to maintain previous years’ giving levels. The report on 2008 charitable giving released by Giving USA last week shows the largest percentage decline on record, although as Sean Stannard-Stockton of the Tactical Philanthropy blog wisely points out:
Charitable giving behaved more or less as it normally does when the economy sours. This is, by most measures, the worst recession in a very long time and so we’re seeing charitable giving get hit. But it is only declining in line with the way it normally behaves. Things are tough, but there was no apocalypse.
Still, the news is troubling.
Although foundation giving makes up only 13% of the charitable giving pie, their reaction to an economic crisis can have a dramatic impact on charitable giving overall. Foundations are in some ways viewed as the philanthropic experts and can set trends that can transform the impact of philanthropy. Take the Gates Foundation for example. Last year they received $10.4 million in unsolicited donations simply because other philanthropists think that Gates is a philanthropic leader.
So now is the time for foundations to lead the way towards more effective philanthropy–philanthropy that builds and scales organizations rather than buys services, as Michael Selzer, writer, educator, nonprofit leader and PhilanTopic contributor, points out in his recent post. Michael argues that the economic crisis provides a natural impetus to foundations to become builders of organizations rather than buyers of services, and in fact he poses a provocative question:
A growing number of foundations are beginning to think of themselves as “builders” rather than “buyers”…buyers award grants with an eye to achieving specific programmatic outcomes, while builders, always mindful of outcomes, seek to help grantees strengthen their organizational capacity so as to achieve greater impact in the future. To the extent that “buying” is limited to a relatively short-term transaction rather than a longer-term interest in the organizational well-being of the grantee, it is not an especially productive activity. Which leads me to ask: What foundation would want to be a buyer rather than a builder in today’s environment?
Michael goes on to somewhat equate “building” funds with general operating support, pointing out that only 20% of all grants go to operating, whereas 50% of all grants go to specific programs or projects. He offers a list of ways for foundations to increase their “builder” funding while still supporting specific programs. His list includes giving grantees the latitude to adequately account for indirect costs, expediting grant approval processes, expanding grant periods to more than a year, and sharing responsibility with grantees for securing remaining program costs if the foundation is only funding part of the program. Michael calls these “extraordinary measures” for “building the capacity of the nonprofit sector for the long haul.”
I disagree. Nothing in his list seems extraordinary to me. The economic crisis and the resulting effects on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector does call for extraordinary measures, a resetting of both realms: the nonprofits and the philanthropists who fund them. And because foundations lead the charge in the philanthropic realm they have an obligation to take a hard look at how they do things and try some truly extraordinary measures. A list of truly extraordinary measures that foundations could take includes:
- Increasing the use of program-related investments (PRIs) to include capacity building projects like upgraded nonprofit fundraising functions.
- Exploring mission-related investing, investing part of a foundation’s corpus in social businesses that meet the foundation’s mission, to a much larger extent as a way to expand the reach and impact of the foundation.
- Increasing the percentage of capacity building and unrestricted grants that the foundation makes. Instead of 20%, let’s bump that number up to 40%.
- Exploring becoming a spend-down foundation that doesn’t exist in perpetuity, but rather spends their corpus in order to have a larger impact on social problems in this generation.
- Increasing growth capital investments–large ($500K+), 3-5 year investments that pay for the infrastructure required for a proven nonprofit to scale.
- Reducing the strings and reporting requirements placed on nonprofit grantees.
- Decreasing the push towards funding of new programs and investing more money and time in the infrastructure of proven programs that could grow to serve more people.
That’s not to say that there aren’t foundations out there that are doing these things. There absolutely are, but they are in the minority. Foundations as a group could help transform philanthropy by becoming builders more often than buyers. These are challenging, demanding, restructuring times. They call for bold, risky, extraordinary action. Foundations can lead that charge.