“….in this age of elites who delight in such phrases as “out of the box” and “killer app”, arguably the most coveted status symbol isn’t a yacht, a racehorse, or a knighthood; it’s a philanthropic foundation — and, more than that, one actively managed in ways that show its sponsor has big ideas for reshaping the world.”
Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats
I remember reading that line in Plutocrats and laughing out loud. It’s so true, especially here in the Silicon Valley region. And it’s why I’m not keen on engaging with a lot of foundations.
This came to light recently as a friend told me about a grant that might fit one of the non-profit groups I work with. My friend was convinced we had a good shot at getting the six figure grant and he asked for a lot of information.
We dutifully went through the process, providing all we could. It took plenty of time and took our focus away from actually doing the good work of the non-profit. But that’s how the game is played, so we obliged by rounding up information only a grant officer would ask for.
In the end we missed out on the grant. It went to an organization that was “cutting edge” with a “scaleable” model that “better leveraged resources” to “maximize the impact”. Good grief. I wanted to write back, “Got any other clichés to share?”
Obviously I’m disappointed we did not get the grant. But the foundation has the right to do what they want with their money.
I just wish they were a little more grounded in their thinking and less idealistic. Funding “innovative” projects is great. We need creative solutions to be tried and tested. But we need to put even more funding into the tried and true systems that work.
The problem, of course, is this is boring. More and more foundations want to fund cutting edge at the expense of tried and tested. It’s like saying, “Hey, let’s put all our money in tech ventures with no proven profitability, and nothing into stable businesses.” Not wise financial planning. And not wise philanthropy.
Sadly, I’m even seeing churches jump on this trend. A pastor recently asked me how his church can “maximize outcomes” with their missions budget, what “innovative” steps my non-profit is working on, and how we can “quantify” the impact their support makes. Sigh.
I responded by telling him he’s asking the wrong questions. And that I’m not sure I wanted to partner with his church because they seem to misunderstand the idea of a ministry partnership. It’s not about my non-profit proving that we are worthy; it’s about two organizations helping each other fulfill their mission.
Partnering with a church (or a foundation) should not be a one way street where funding and volunteers flow from the church to the non profit, with nothing but a thank you letter flowing the other way. It needs to be an equal relationship. Accountability is important, but collaboration has to be the heart of a ministry partnership. And accountability has to go both ways — if they are going to ask me to quantify the results, then I should be allowed to ask them to quantify their spiritual growth as a result of their global focus.
That last point usually makes pastors really nervous and I never hear from them again.
So, back to the idea of boring. This holiday season, I hope you support the boring organizations that do good work. See that Salvation Army red bucket? They do really boring work, and it deserves your support. See that prevention program keeping kids out of harms way? Pretty boring stuff at first glance, but radically important. See that under resourced school? Yeah, schools are pretty boring, but they build the future. You get the idea.
So ignore the flashy brochures, the clever speech, and the slick marketing. Find the most boring non-profit you can find and support them this holiday season. Then brag to your friends about scaling your maximized out of the box innovations. Maybe you’ll even get a knighthood.