Sunday, September 18, 2011

Golden Eggshells

The current economic climate and its subsequent impact on the civic sector is frightening. While all nonprofits felt the pinch early in, many – most - have been able to weather their financial challenges by hunkering down, appealing to their supporters and realigning their priorities and focus.
Yet its 2011 and the crisis continues…the stress enduring for too long and the sluggish economy no less threatening. And, after so long, many nonprofits have depleted their reserves, exhausted their friends, and have restructured their affairs yet again -- but this time to no avail -- and must now cash in their chips.
It's an odd and unsettling space for those of us in foundations.  The economy has undeniably impacted our organizations as well, in some cases plummeting our financial value and scaring away new investors.  Like our nonprofit partners, we're scared and feeling vulnerable -- watching the market daily, sometimes hourly.  But, bottom line, we're still here. We're wounded but still standing. And many of us, because we have the option, have decided to wait.  Wait to see what happens. Wait to give grants. Wait to give more grants.  Wait…but not in fear of demise……not for our final knoll.
Foundations and our nonprofit partners are two sides of the same coin; we provide critical resources that enable our sectarian partners to do good. Foundations agonize over how to be responsible stewards of philanthropic dollars…while the recipients of our largess agonize over how best to comfort, house, protect and hold dear all that is precious in our shared communities.  For foundations, during times as these, balancing how to be appropriately judicious and generous is paradoxical: somewhat akin to saving for a rainy day while a tornado rages outside. The relationship between funders and grantseekers, inherently tenuous from the imbalance of power, becomes more fragile.  
So those of us in foundations find ourselves walking on eggshells… albeit eggshells filled with precious, essential gold.
A recent report by the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, entitled Widespread Empathy, asserts that "…Empathy should be a core driver of grantmaking for foundations". It suggests tactics such as meeting with grantees, inviting grantees into our office; and being willing to change. These are solid recommendations and I honestly don't know any grantmakers who don't already do these things.  Yet, I'd suggest another, possibly precursor strategy as well...that foundations come together to clarify what we can and are willing to bring to the table.   
My experience is that that our region's foundations eschew structured partnerships with one another, with some exceptions (such as the Southeastern Council for Foundation's EngAGEment initiative and the Philanthropic Collaborative for a Healthy Georgia). We enjoy meeting with one another; learning from and with one another; funding the same organizations and supporting the same causes. We know one another and we often like one another.  But when it comes to coordinating and aligning our dollars, our grantmaking, and our influence, we are quick to say our trustees won't allow it. We complain that our boards are fussy. We brandish our strategic plan, citing our strategic priorities. But we stop short of trying to ensure that we are more effective as a collective.
Now, more than ever, foundations are charged to get into the nitty gritty of one another's philosophies, challenges and priorities – and learn where we mesh and where we do not. As privileged caretakers of giving dollars, we have the opportunity to not only cooperate but to truly collaborate -- not the legendary "back room deals" and "inside picks" that we've long been accused of -- but new understandings and relationships in which we confer and connect about what's important in our beloved, shared communities. Understanding where the pain is; where the good and innovative work's being done; and how we might augment, complement and leverage our giving to ensure it alleviates the most suffering.
It's a first step, by foundations, that can provide the data and foundation to do our part smartly and responsibly. To find the balance. To stop waiting and to act. 
…We may have to crack an egg or two to get there. But our yoke will be the balm our community needs.