Thoughts on Eleven Years of Funder Education

When I entered this field as a professional, as head of a no-longer-standing foundation, I approached many of my colleagues – to find mentors, and those who could share insights on how to do this work, there was one line I heard so often, it seemed to be a professional mantra: You’ve met one foundation, you’ve met one foundation.

Of course, I began to understand, I was now in a field which had no commonly accepted standards, and had an ethos which indulged the individuality of the primary funder or the personality of a given foundation. Was it because of a deep-seated arrogance, a competitive instinct, or unawareness that there are in fact things all funders should know? I came to the conclusion that it was a combination of all three – in different proportions depending on the foundation. Collegiality, to the degree it existed, was largely cosmetic.

When I came to that position, I was not exactly a novice: I had been on the boards or trustee of several family and public foundations, and had worked professionally in an international, national, and local grantmaking capacities, but in looking back, I certainly could have used some formal training. There were many mistakes I made which needn’t have been made – most of which were, thankfully, minor. More to the point, I had to learn strategies and methodologies, laws and best practices, the nature of grantee and funder relationships along the way. And while there is nothing wrong with learning on the job, it would have been far more effective if I had been able to spend that time and energy developing the unique and most effective strategy for that foundation based on a strong mastery of the field.

It was a bit by accident that I became an educator of funders and foundation professionals. I began to be asked to conduct sessions at philanthropy conferences, and taught one of the first courses at NYU’s Center for Philanthropy. In a course which NYU thought would attract fundraisers, the majority of the “students” turned out to be funders. It quickly became clear that I was not the only one in our field who wanted to know more.

When the hybrid corporate/family foundation I was heading closed, I found myself with time to explore what the field was thinking about funder education. With great appreciation to those at the Council on Foundations, the Association of Small Foundations, the National Center for Family Philanthropy, several regional associations, and a diverse collection of independent and family foundations, all of whom were deeply involved in advising us in our early stages, we developed a certificate program built on the “core competencies of grantmaking.” There was a clear consensus that funders needed to understand the history of philanthropy, the nature, the law, and the financial structures of the non profit, the interrelationship of law, ethics, and best practices, the dynamic tension between appropriate use of influence and the inappropriate abuse of power, various funding strategies and how to weigh objective and subjective data, how to understand and when to use evaluations, how to set policies, and more.

Subsequently named the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education, that program has now taught many hundreds of foundation professionals, family funders, foundation trustees, individual philanthropists, and wealth managers. Over the years, the program has expanded, offered additional specialized courses, attracted funders from around the world, and has, at least according to the subsequent feedback, helped advance the sophistication and responsible behavior of funders around the world.

Needless to say, much has changed in our evolving field. A decade ago, investment policies were given token mention; today it would be unthinkable not to understand the role of investment policy and its interrelationship with funding policies. A decade ago, it was quite sufficient to help foundation trustees become self reflective; today that self-reflection is being tested by many outspoken advocates for very specific funding priorities. A decade ago, the innovation sphere was largely led by venture funders who had little patience for the stultifying decision making of the large consensus driven charities; today a growing pool of younger innovators are taking advantage of the development of the tech sphere and social networking to redefine how philanthropy might work. A decade ago, just the collection of objective and reliable information about a non-profit was a challenge; today, the challenge is to learn how to make constructive judgments about a surfeit of available data. A decade ago, there were a modest number of special interest funder affinity groups; today our field has exploded with organizations of all sorts, each with its own conferences, webinars, membership criteria, and point of view. A decade ago, the field was a bit below the radar screen of the press and popular culture; today there is hardly a day which doesn’t publicize the pledges or convictions of one or another funder, foundation, or philanthropic initiative. A decade ago, foundations functioned behind closed doors with an aura of impenetrability and inscrutability; today, the debate is over the transparency of decisions and the representative nature of the deciders. A decade ago, the role of private foundation and public policy was largely agreed upon – even if rarely articulated; today the debate over the role of government, the financial crisis, and the interconnectedness of global need have put the question of the role of private philanthropy center stage in the public discourse. And much more ….

The field of funder education is also growing. While the NYU Academy once had this field largely to ourselves, we now welcome many other universities and organizations who are now entering the field of funder education. The Council on Foundations, one of our original partners, has taken the lead in coordinating information about this expansion through their Learn Philanthropy initiative. And there are a growing number of university credit courses, teen philanthropy projects, private sector seminars to round out this increasingly crowded field.

And yet …. I daresay that the majority of foundation professionals are still largely unaware that there are systematic ways of learning the field; most private funders still are more likely to be advised about their philanthropy by well meaning attorneys or wealth managers than by those of us with this expertise, and our field is still too silo-ed and, dare I say, competitive. As philanthropic giving is understood to be the purview of those of more modest means and not just the very rich, the need for this education grows. I would be the first to say that, despite 11 years of teaching funders, we have barely scratched the surface.

I would love to imagine the day, soon, when, if someone asks about the field, the default will be “if you’ve met one foundation …. you have met just one of a growing field of well educated, disciplined, ethical, and thoughtful funders.”

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; he is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. Richard specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning and blogs at Wise Philanthropy.