The Foundation CEO’s Delicate Balancing Act: Aligning Logic and Intuition

How can a foundation CEO set a tone and culture that strike the right balance between rational, disciplined, and quantitative grantmaking and passion-driven, responsive, and intuitive approaches?  A packed room of CEOs grappled with this question at the Council’s Annual Conference during the “Striking the Humanistic-Technocratic Balance in Grantmaking” CEO session facilitated by my colleague Paul Connolly. The session built on an article Paul wrote for the Foundation Review and featured CEOs Claire Peeps of The Durfee Foundation and Clara Miller of The F.B. Heron Foundation.

I was particularly struck by one CEO’s question: “How do you keep program officers’ inner wisdom from running rampant in the community?” While it’s fine to have different approaches in different aspects of your work, how do you keep that from devolving into what she called “a series of fiefdoms?” The key to striking the balance, she suggested, was alignment.

As I thought about her comments, it occurred to me, as a strategy consultant who works with funders but also as a trustee of my family’s foundation, that there are two distinct areas where the CEO (and the board) need to establish this alignment: a foundation’s goals and its values.

At its core, a goal is what the foundation is trying to achieve: Why your staff is passionate about what they do and what you hope will change as the result of your efforts. In the day-to-day business of philanthropy, it can be easy to get bogged down in tactics and lose sight of the real purpose. It’s the job of the CEO to remain focused on the end goal, so the means don’t overwhelm it. More importantly, it’s the job of the CEO to make sure that the goal is clear and that everyone understands how their work is in service to it. It’s his or her responsibility to constantly ask, “How does that program/grant/white paper help us improve outcomes, and is there a better way to do that?”

The second and far more challenging area where it’s imperative that the CEO establish alignment is in articulating and implementing a foundation’s values. Many of the CEOs in the session called themselves “values-driven” funders. Depending on the foundation, the values may be set by the donor, board, or company. The “value-setting” agent(s) may be actively involved, or long gone. In any case, values tend to be vague and removed from the frontline work of grantmaking. It’s up to the CEO to help staff understand how those principles are to be practiced in every aspect of the foundation’s affairs and to push the board to clearly articulate how they want those values implemented. For example, Peeps articulated a value of her foundation when she said, “We say at our foundation that we’ve never had an original idea; we get the ideas from the organizations with which we work.”

Throughout the conference, I heard countless participants mention that they “partner with grantees.”  That seems like a generally positive trend, but I don’t really know what it means—or rather, I know what it means to me, but I don’t know what it means to others. And I suspect it means a lot of different things to different people. “Partnership” is a value, and it’s one that can be interpreted in a lot of different ways. A good CEO gets down to brass tacks on matters like these. If your staff is going to partner with your grantees, what does this mean for accountability? How much of their time should they spend providing direct assistance to grantees, leveraging funding, and working on joint policy goals? 

Most foundation CEOs surely know that their job is to articulate goals and values and weave them into the everyday operations of their organization. But the great challenge is to maintain focus on the foundation’s core principles while adapting to changing environments and to help everyone else in their organization do the same. Without crystal clarity about what they’re trying to achieve and guidelines about how they’re supposed to accomplish it (values), you risk even the best-intentioned staff “going rogue” and building programs that don’t fit your core goals and values.

With a firm understanding of these principles, however, staff will have the flexibility to harness all the creative energy I believe lies in philanthropy to help solve these complex problems. As Miller advised, “The ratio of think-cycle to do-cycle is high in the field. Spend time on the do-cycle, looking for artful ways of applying the tools you have.”

Ashley Blanchard is associate director of philanthropy for TCC Group.

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