Why Foundations Can’t Take Their Messages for Granted (VIDEO)

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Guest Post: Susan Herr, PhilanthroMedia

As president of the Foundation Center, an organization that collects more data on organized philanthropy than any other group, Brad Smith is uniquely positioned to spot trends emerging in the sector.  As I learned when we sat down together recently in New York, foremost on his mind is the need for foundations–more than ever before–to keep repeating their messages, especially in our digital age where the competition to be heard and understood is fierce.

Here are some of the highlights from our conversation, featured in the five-minute video below:

With freedom comes obligation to communicate.  Brad’s starting point is that foundations have an obligation to communicate because of what he describes as their “immense privilege and freedom” to “take risks” in tackling some of some of the most challenging problems the world over. But he also says it’s a mistake to think foundations need to communicate out of “fear” that if they don’t tell their stories, the lack of understanding about what they do and why they do it will leave them vulnerable to threat of legislation that will take away some of their freedoms or special tax status.  He thinks it’s better that foundations communicate out of a desire to share their aspirations to build a better world and how they’re working to make that happen.

Reinvent humility. Having practiced philanthropy in countries ruled by military dictatorships and serving 10 years as Vice President responsible for the Ford Foundation’s Peace and Social Justice program, Brad is well aware of that some foundation leaders may be reticent to share stories of impact.  He attributed this, in part, to a very old ethos about humility that comes from Andrew Carnegie and religious traditions upon which philanthropy is built in our culture.  It’s “…the idea that you let your good works speak for themselves.”  At the level of program staff, this also plays out around the idea that it is grantees who do “the work” so they have no ground upon which to knowledgeably contribute to understanding of that work.  Tweaking this ethos may not be enough to take philanthropy to the next level.  Instead, he suggested no less than reinventing our conception of humility in the digital age.

Harvest wisdom from information.   Noting the exponential increase of data being collected by foundations as part of their on-line grant application and reporting processes, Brad told me that the next decade will see demands escalate understanding how that information can be mined to achieve greater levels of social impact. I’ve long wondered if foundations were pressured to actually do something with all the data they request from grantees, would they ask for so much?  If Brad’s correct, that consideration will be coming to the fore sooner rather than later.

Watch the video and share your thoughts.


Susan Herr, a regular Communications Network contributor, is president of PhilanthroMedia.

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