“you’ve met one foundation…”

When I first entered the foundation field as a professional, I quickly learned that the most popular bon mot in the field was “you’ve met one foundation… you’ve met one foundation.” I heard it often, always with a self-satisfied smile, which affirmed the unique character, history, legacy, and style of each foundation. The message was clear: don’t assume you understand the field or that you should develop your approach based on the assumption that our field has a consistency or even an agreed upon method of operation.

For those in the field, it is and was both liberating and limiting. It acknowledged the truth that virtually all private grantmaking foundations are derived from individual wealth and that those who made that money [or their heirs] were proud that they didn’t do things like everyone else [otherwise, how would they have accumulated more wealth than their peers?] It also implicitly affirmed the unique attribute of private philanthropy – that there is a great autonomy to give based on personal interest and not be subject to either consensus or someone else’s “objective need.” It legitimated peculiarities of interests, allowed great diversity in how one dealt with funding decisions and grantees, and essentially fostered a silo-ed field.

[While I am not on the fundraising side of the table, I feel sorry for fundraisers and organizations having to wend their way through this maze. Successfully managing the shoals of one foundation’s process may provide absolutely no insights into the next one. Those who teach fundraisers often emphasize developing a “relationship” with foundation pros, not a bad recommendation, but as one who has sat at lots of decision-making tables, an outsider cannot fully intuit or anticipate all of the dynamics that will take place in that room.]

But if the self-authenticating concept of foundations is liberating, it is also limiting. Implicitly it says that there are no standards, best practices, lessons or learnings which can make our giving more impactful, wiser, or effective. Even if one admires a fellow funder, the “one foundation….” concept suggests that it may have only a coincidental impact on one’s own giving strategy. After all, those who made the money or steward it are or were highly competitive types. Do you really think that they leave that personality at the door when they set up a philanthropic entity? In fact, in many cases, the more successful or visible a competitor foundation might be, the more likely that others will want to do it differently. There is much talk about collaboration and partnership in our field today, but as I have written elsewhere, it is harder to do than to say.

If the only implication of this individuated and atomized approach to giving were that diverse practices prevailed, it wouldn’t be great but it wouldn’t be an ethical issue. However, the most recent scandal in the non-profit field, l’affaire Madoff, has demonstrated a darker and deeper dilemma.

Any well trained attorney, philanthropy advisor, tax accountant, and non profit expert knows that there are laws and standards regarding investment policies, prudent investor, roles of board members, conflict of interest, etc which should [and in some situations, must] be observed. What is clear in so many of the cases of private foundations and non-profit boards which lost money to Madoff is the degree that these standards were violated. [I am not a lawyer so it is not for me to say what I suspect to be the case: that laws as well as accepted standards were broken by trustees.]

I wasn’t in the room when boards made these decisions, but one can easily picture the scenarios – why adhere to prudent investor rules of diversification if one investment has consistently been so good? Why disallow our treasurer from being involved in the investment vehicles when clearly he or she has a reputation for being so reliable and effective? Why should we take these external recommendations seriously when we all know each other very well and our mutual trust is more important than the limitations on that trust that is imposed, heaven forefend, by a bureaucratic government? All were well meaning, but they all derived from a sense that their autonomy mattered more than external standards. Was it hubris, arrogance, or simply the internalization that “you’ve met one foundation….” means that we set our own rules?

Not long ago, I joined the board of a new small foundation in a state with a tradition of “the best government is the least government.” At our first meeting, being an educator and philanthropy advisor committed to the concept of best practices and policies, I raised a whole series of questions of my fellow board members, many of whom were in fact lawyers. At one point, they gave me a patronizing look and explained “this isn’t New York; no one cares about those things here.” [In fairness, though, the group did ultimately agree to policies which would have avoided both legal violation and the investment embarrassments of recent days.]

One of the reasons I take being an educator on philanthropy so seriously is that I have come to reject the validity of the “you’ve met one foundation….” concept. I do fully endorse and encourage each foundation to set its own culture, strategy, and course of action reflective of its own unique legacy. But, I also believe that one can learn how to avoid legal, ethical, and procedural pitfalls. One can learn how not to abuse the power of the funder. One can learn how and when to use appropriate evaluation methods. One can learn how to understand 990’s, site visits, objective and subjective information. One can learn from others who have succeeded and failed in attempting to do what you would like to do. I know that, when I was heading a prominent foundation, I made needless mistakes that would have been easily avoided had I been given a different message when I began.

I once heard the chief executive of an association of funders claim publicly “we are inventing this field.” It isn’t true. There are best and worst practices. There are better and worse ways of doing things. There are lessons to be learned from fellow funders without in any way limiting your individuality and decision-making. If it is a field, it needs to be accountable, and there is a noble and responsible history on which to build.

These times require that we put that old bon mot to rest and commit ourselves to a field built on mutual accountability, the highest standards, humility, credibility and shared purpose. Our field of philanthropy, no less than our society as a whole, needs that. I would hope that it is a sign of the maturity of our field that in the future, when a new colleague joins us, we can say, “welcome! Let’s help you – or teach you – how to do it right.”

Richard Marker serves as an advisor to foundations, independent funders, and not-for-profit organizations; and is a Senior Fellow in Philanthropy at NYU’s George Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy. He specializes in strategic philanthropy and planning. He can also be found blogging at Wise Philanthropy. Richard is an occasional contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.