The Foundation Operations and Management Report—New Advice for Funders and Grantmakers

February 23, 2017 Henry Berman

As funders, many of us spend quite a bit of time looking outward. We look at the world around us and find outlets that reflect our philanthropic passions. We look at communities to see needs and possibilities. We look at nonprofits and the people who lead them to find inspiration, motivation, and opportunities for directing our support. Yet how often do we take the time to look in the mirror?

In the 1937 Disney classic animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Queen looks at her reflection and asks, “Magic mirror on the wall, who is the fairest one of all?” Although we may agree the Queen had evil intents, she does deserve some credit for wanting to learn a bit about herself. In her actions are two important messages for all of us who make grants and support nonprofits: the first is the desire to look at ourselves, and the second concerns an open mind.

At Exponent Philanthropy, one of the ways we help our members look inward is via our annual Foundation Operations and Management Report. For nearly two decades, our foundation members have reported on their investments, governance, administration, and grantmaking. Their responses provide a look in the mirror in the aggregate by providing benchmarks among foundations operating with minimal infrastructure or, as we like to say, small-staffed.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Jamie Serino of MicroEdge + Blackbaud on his Champions of Social Good podcast. We talked about the importance of funders listening to a diverse set of voices. Our conversation focused on knowing the communities and the ultimate beneficiaries of our grant dollars, and the concept absolutely extends to listening to ourselves as funders.

Among the more interesting items revealed in the just-released 2017 Foundation Operations and Management Report is the gender pay gap that exists among small-staffed foundations. Despite more women holding foundation leadership roles than men, women tend to earn only 85 cents for every dollar paid to men, even with comparable years of experience. Depending on the reports you read about the exact pay gap in America, the number we found is very close to those found throughout society.

On one hand, we might try to console ourselves by rationalizing that funders are just like everyone else. But, as philanthropists presumably dedicated to improving the world, whether that world revolves around medical research, environmental protection, religious values, helping children, or supporting the arts, shouldn’t we share a fundamental belief in equal pay?

There is also lots of information in our report that highlights upward trends in strategies for increasing impact, including:

  • Reviewing grantmaking strategies regularly
  • Sending board members to conferences or education
  • Bringing in speakers or resources from the field
  • Gathering feedback from grantees about the foundation

Small-staffed foundations also increasingly formalized their governance by putting their practices into writing, including strategic or long-range plans.

Take a listen to the podcast and study the report. By looking in the mirror and understanding where we are doing well and where we can improve, we are taking the first step to being better funders, which ultimately benefits everyone.

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