To Increase Impact, Foundations Must Leverage Our Privilege

Stuart Comstock-Gay

This post from Stuart Comstock-Gay, president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation, is the last in a series of eight essays from foundation CEOs reflecting on findings from the CEP research report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in conjunction with its 50th anniversary.

It’s clear from The Future of Foundation Philanthropy that I’m not the only person to point out the incredible privilege of working in a foundation.

We have the luxury of sitting back on a lofty perch where, merely by dint of our position, we are assumed to be smarter than we probably are, and are given more deference than we probably deserve. (On a personal note, I’d like to say that I really can be funny sometimes.) The privilege is many-faceted. One thing I never forget is that when I work at a foundation, I don’t go to bed wondering if I can meet payroll.

So it’s particularly important that we think hard about pushing for impact. Are we making a difference? To paraphrase Ed Koch, “How we doin’?”

And while that’s a question we need to ask of those we work with — grantees, community leaders, donor partners — it’s also an important question to ask ourselves. There’s much I like about this report. It reflects, as usual, the willingness of foundation leaders to be self-critical (at least anonymously). It reflects an understanding that to truly make a difference, we need to constantly assess ourselves.

But, I have a few peeves.

First, we should note that most respondents agreed on answers in this survey. That isn’t necessarily a good thing. And yet it shouldn’t surprise us. Most of us attend the same conferences and read the same books, reports, and newspaper. We follow the same fads, live in the same neighborhoods, and often have very similar backgrounds.

It’s clear that our perspectives would diversify if more of us lived and socialized in small rural communities, served in the military, spent time receiving food stamps and on the unemployment line, were first generation immigrants, or lived in drug-plagued neighborhoods. We cannot forget that it’s comfortable to stay in our industry and with our peers. But it’s not adequate if our goal is to improve our communities at large.

Second, I’m caught short when I read that “now more than ever” our work is essential. I believe the times are urgent now, but frankly, there’s always urgency to the times. I may agree that there’s a unique urgency to climate change. But as bad as the political and social situation is in this country, it’s been bad before — indeed, worse. There’s a certain hubris in believing we are facing a time unlike any before, and we must remind ourselves that others have faced equally urgent times. And so yes, we need to be driven by that urgency. And at the same time, for lasting change and impact, we need to also act with constancy and resolve for the long term.

Notwithstanding these peeves, I fully agree with Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer’s perspective in the foreword of the report that respondents here both overestimate what philanthropy can do while underestimating the good we currently do. If we know anything, we know this is true. We can, do, and will make a difference. It may not be as big as we’d like, but it matters. We must balance the tendency toward hubris — the belief that our work will change history — while at the same time continuing in a sometimes-blind faith that we can change our communities.

And sometimes those changes in our communities turn out to be historic, after all. In the 1920s and ’30s, Julius Rosenwald built nearly 5,000 schools for African Americans in the South. In my own state of Delaware, Pierre S. DuPont funded 89 similar schools during the ’20s. Both men were committed to serving the children who needed education then. While they didn’t set out to change history, they did. One of the Delaware schools became part of Brown v. Board of Education, overturning segregation in education and setting the stage for integration in other aspects of life in America.

The philanthropy of Rosenwald, DuPont, and their counterparts made a tremendous difference in the lives of African Americans in this country. Their impact continues today.

And yet, despite those important successes, the struggle continues for schools where children of all races receive outstanding education. The education crisis today continues in ways that could not have been imagined in the early 20th century, and in ways that would seem all too familiar.

Philanthropy can make a difference. But philanthropy cannot make all the difference.

To my way of thinking, the two most significant observations in this report concern: 1) the importance of foundations taking risks; and 2) the recognition that we must actively engage the community in deeper ways.

On the first, we often lack the courage our perch should afford us. We have financial capital by design. We have political capital by virtue of our position, and if we have done our work well, we’ve demonstrated our ability to make a difference in our communities. The test of our commitment to the future is whether and when we use that capital to try untested ideas, to challenge orthodoxy, and to push for new and creative solutions. Groupthink constrains that creative approach, and we need to fight it.

The second is the notion that “community members” should be actively invited to join us in our work. We’re in a time when our traditional democratic institutions are splitting apart. There are many reasons for this, but too many people in this country simply do not believe that traditional institutions represent them. Foundations, even when making a positive difference, are by nature elitist and part of the establishment.

In the community foundation world, where I’ve hung my hat for a majority of the past 20 years, we have a built-in requirement to listen to the community. Because our work is premised on obtaining support from a variety of donors merely to stay in business, we risk our very existence if we ignore outside voices. And yet, even there, danger lurks. Oftentimes, the donors with whom we work also live in the same world as we do — with the same education backgrounds, reading materials, neighborhoods, employment, and the like.

I’m encouraged by foundations that try to expand or flip that formula. I’m encouraged by the work of folks like the Humboldt Area Foundation in California, which has shifted many decisions from board and staff into the hands of local residents. I admire the Incourage Foundation in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, which is devoting its entire resource base to engaging community members in its work to strengthen the community.

Not only do these foundations begin to address the growing economic divide in this country, but they also empower those who too often feel powerless.

It’s a big charge we carry in the foundation world. At community foundations, we seek to improve the quality of life in our communities. Overall, most of us have done some good. But there’s much more we can do. I’m reminded of Theodore Parker’s quote: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” But that doesn’t happen on its own, and it doesn’t happen without hard work.

This blog post is one of eight reflections from foundation CEOs to the CEP research report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective. Download the entire collection of CEO reflections here.

Stuart Comstock-Gay is president and CEO of the Delaware Community Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @StuComstockGay.

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