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Talent in Philanthropy

Resource type: Speech

Gara LaMarche |

Newspaper reporters, baseball pitching scouts, art dealers and movie studio casting agents all provide models for philanthropy to follow in finding and cultivating talented programme officers, said Gara LaMarche, The Atlantic Philanthropies’ President and CEO, in this speech to the Foundation Impact Research Group, Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy, Duke University.

When Joel Fleishman invited me to join the list of foundation leaders who have spoken in this prestigious forum, I was honored and delighted, but uncertain what I would talk about. I write and give speeches a fair amount, but with few exceptions I rarely address philanthropic topics, preferring to talk about the substantive issues that the foundations I have been privileged to work for are focused on, such as criminal justice, immigrant rights, aging, civil liberties and national security, and racism. About the craft of philanthropy that I have now practiced for a dozen years, I’ve said very little. But I want to depart from my usual preferences this afternoon, since I have the opportunity to share some thoughts with a highly engaged audience that thinks about philanthropy a great deal, and in highly sophisticated ways.

I was moved to select the topic of talent in philanthropy – even before I had a very good idea of what I might say – by a lunch I had a few months ago with the relatively new leader of a colleague foundation, who cut his teeth in the private sector. He said he had a lot of experience and success in hiring people in business, where you tend to recruit young people on the basis of talent and predicted capacity, not knowledge or a track record. But he was interested in my experiences on hiring in this field, where taking on recent graduates in anything other than support positions is quite rare. In effect, he was asking: what makes a good foundation staffer? I was equally curious, of course, about what makes a person able to see the possibility that one recent liberal arts graduate was likely to grow into a consultant who could in a few years bill millions of dollars for her firm, while another might be better off sticking to late Victorian poetry. But nevertheless, it got me thinking.

The conversation, and the reflection it prompted, put me in mind of one I had a dozen years ago, when I prepared to enter philanthropy as the Director of the Open Society Institute’s U.S. Programs, after two decades working in non-profit advocacy groups. I was eager for advice, so I went to one of the most thoughtful and candid funders I knew, whose consistent core support for Human Rights Watch, where I was at the time associate director, had been much appreciated: Bob Crane, then at the Joyce Mertz-Gilmore Foundation. Bob probably gave me a lot of good advice that afternoon in his office, but I only remember one bit of it: hire generalists, not experts. I may remember it particularly well because I largely ignored it.

So the first question about talent in philanthropy is: what kind of skill set are you looking for? Philanthropy, like most other disciplines, has a number of different professional and non-professional jobs in it, from receptionist to controller to communications officer. But my main focus today is what I consider to be the key frontline position, the core of the business. At the New York Times, it would be a reporter; at McKinsey and Company, it would be a consultant; at Human Rights Watch, it would be a researcher. At Atlantic Philanthropies, it would be a program executive, but the more generic title, and what most foundations use, is program officer.

You may be amused to know that in preparing for this talk, I wondered where the term “program officer” came from. I have only heard it used in connection with foundations, and I wondered who had invented it. I asked Joel, who didn’t know, and he asked Tony Proscio, who is probably the leading source of information about the way foundations use – and abuse – language, and he didn’t know. I Googled the term, with little yield except to confirm my sense that it is a job title primarily used by foundations.

Back to Bob Crane’s advice, who makes the best program officer? Is it someone with deep content knowledge in a particular field, or someone versatile enough to handle a number of issues, move over time from one field to another? Of course, you have to know a number of things before being able to answer, including facts about the size and scope of the foundation. A very small foundation – and most of the foundations in the United States are quite small, many not even staffed – doesn’t have the luxury of being able to opt for narrow expertise. It needs a utility infielder. A larger foundation of the kind I am most experienced in, and whose leaders have comprised the roster of speakers over the years in this forum, generally deals with at least several issues and will have multiple program officers – in the case of a very large place like MacArthur, OSI or Atlantic, dozens. In those foundations, which do most of the funding aimed at social policy in the United States and around the world, there is a choice: generalist or specialist?

Most have answered the question, as I did at OSI and as Atlantic did before and since I arrived there, by ignoring Bob Crane’s advice. (In fact, Bob Crane, since leaving Joyce Mertz-Gilmore to lead the JEHT Foundation, has come to rethink his own advice, but that’s another story.) They take the view that they are dealing in complex fields like education reform, climate change, poverty reduction, civil rights and the like, and for the most part draw their program officers from the fields themselves, from the scholarly realm or the organizational side, depending on the nature of the foundation. At OSI, for example, we tended to hire people with strong backgrounds as advocates, since the foundation was quite comfortable with activism.

What are the benefits of hiring a specialist? Well, many of the fields we deal in are highly developed and often complex, and it may not be very respectful of the organizations and institutions we support to make their critical link to funding someone who has to learn on the job — who may take years to get up to speed on, say, the saga of failed immigration reform, the web of relationships and rivalries among human rights or environmental groups, the landscape of school reform. Someone with a store of knowledge and relationships will hit the ground running, and the work is less likely to suffer from on-the-job training.

What are the hazards of hiring primarily on the basis of specialty? For one thing, the expert program officer may not have a broad view, a larger context about public policy or social change that is an essential element of understanding how to make an impact. They may not know how to manage people or translate their theories into programs that can make a difference in the real world. Moreover, they can be too close to the field to have an independent perspective, and if too immersed in it, can be the captive of their own opinions. Someone who has studied a field and written a lot about it, or who has been a key player in an area they are now funding, is likely to have formed strong views. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, since, as I will discuss a bit later, it is desirable for a program officer to have a point of view. But there is often a strong temptation not simply to identify strong organizations and individuals whose work advances your change strategies and give them the funds, technical support and running room to excel, but to run the field from the chair of the foundation officer. The staff member who succumbs to it, permitted or even directed to do so by the managers above them, who may have visions of grandeur themselves, disserves the field, because foundations by their particular power can greatly distort the marketplace and other actors in it have little choice but to get in line.

Generalists have strengths and weaknesses that are to some extent the mirror image of those of specialists. They can approach a new issue or initiative with a perspective that is often fresh, not overly influenced by a particular faction, and informed by wide knowledge and experience. A program officer who has years of experience in, say, the gay rights or labor movements may be a better criminal justice funder because she can adapt those lessons to other change arenas. They are more likely to have a broader politics – not in the sense of partisanship, but the important sense of having a framework for understanding how the world works, what are the interdependent elements of the ecosystems of change, how to locate an issue or a field in that broader landscape and make the necessary connections.

In the end, I think the trend of hiring specialists in multiple-issue, professionally-staffed foundations is well-entrenched, and the fact that I have done nothing to change it despite my concerns and despite having responsibility for hiring dozens, if not hundreds of program staff, suggests just how entrenched it is. I would note for the record, though, that several other disciplines that have some kinship to philanthropy, in that they must winnow broad quantities of information and data and make judgments that have consequences for those included or left out, while having have an impact on public debate and policy, traditionally take a different approach.

One is journalism. A major newspaper hires reporters for the most part at an entry level, despite some recent trends toward lateral hiring as media concentration and constriction shakes things up. A young reporter might start out on the police beat, then go to the state capitol, then D.C. or a foreign bureau before returning to take up an editorial post. Even on the critical and opinion side this is common, as a television critic might move on to books, or a movie critic to theatre. It’s expected that a good journalist can come up to speed in a new area, and learn the key players, language and issues, in a matter of months. Yes, the issues foundations deal with can be complex, but not more so than the Mideast peace process or the machinations of Albany or Sacramento.

Another field in which versatility is the norm is book publishing. My friend Will Schwalbe, who led Hyperion Press until recently, edited Nigella Lawson and David Halberstam; Lisa Drew of Simon and Schuster helped both Barbara Bush and Anne Heche bring out what they had to say. Anyone with that kind of range would be valuable in philanthropy. But making a profound change in the way philanthropy looks for talent and organizes it is very hard to do without wiping the slate clean and starting over, which is why people like me haven’t done it. Judith Rodin at Rockefeller, who in her overhaul of that venerable institution is trying a radically different approach to grantmaking centered around initiatives rather than programs, nevertheless seems to have retained for the most part the practice of hiring around expertise, whether it is climate change or urban renewal. So let me leave that part of my talk for now and move on to asking some questions not about the training and background that program officers need, but about how they go about finding the right people and organizations to support, whatever field they are working in.
And here, too, let me start with a conversation that sparked some thinking. At a dinner party in Colorado a few years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Bill Ury, one of the authors of the classic negotiation book, Getting to Yes. He told me he was working on a new book – since published – about “the power of a positive no.” “I work for a foundation,” I quipped. “We’re all about ‘getting to no!’”

Like all jokes, my little one contained a strong grain of all-too-serious truth: in philanthropy we spend much of our time turning things down. Whatever missions or guidelines a foundation adopts, there are always many more applicants than funds available. After a few years in operation, any foundation finds itself torn between the desire to provide stable funding and loyalty to existing grantees, and the desire to support innovation and strike out in new directions.

For these and other reasons, an unspoken but engrained occupational hazard of philanthropy is to structure your work to reflect the vast majority of actions you will be taking: turning down those who approach you for funds. Some funders believe that the values of transparency and accessibility require them to set up an open valve for applications, though a “request for proposals” or some other competitive process. (Indeed, the tax laws require such a process for making individual grants like fellowships and writing grants.) Other funders favor a “curated” approach in which professional program officers are expected to know their field and identify the key players in it who are deserving of support. That is the way Atlantic Philanthropies approaches its grantmaking. Don’t call us, we’ll call you. Both of these systems are tried-and-true, reflecting a healthy pluralism in philanthropy, and I am not proposing to do away with them. But here is what troubles me.

For more open foundations, the process leads, inevitably, to an exclusionary mentality. Like a civics-text chart of “how a bill becomes law,” there are many points along with the way where proposals can be stopped, and only a few things emerge through the narrow mouth of the funnel. One way of looking at this is that it is as it should be. A foundation looks for the best and the worthiest, and if the odds of getting a grant are steeper than those of getting into Harvard, so be it.

But I wonder. In both the open and curated approaches, there is often a predictability about the grantmaking of many foundations, a cast of characters composed of the usual suspects, a heavy concentration of awards to Eastern Seaboard institutions, and, all too often, a lack of racial, gender and class diversity that suggests that most grants go to those most experienced in the ways of getting grants.
Suppose for a moment you started from scratch and set your task as one of finding the best, the most effective, the most innovative of the emerging leaders and organizations in your field of interest. Simply put, suppose you thought of yourself as a talent scout. How might you go about it?

You might start by looking at other fields which place paramount importance at finding creative and impressive people. What does a good editor, baseball pitching scout, art dealer, or movie studio casting agent do?

They keep a very open mind. Ursula Nordstrom, the legendary children’s book editor at Harper and Row, made a practice of seeing any writer or illustrator who showed up at her office with a manuscript or portfolio. If she’d been less accessible, the world might have been deprived of Margaret Wise Brown’s Good Night Moon or Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are.

They move around a lot. Michael Lewis, describing the way traditional baseball scouts work in his 2003 Moneyball, writes: “in the scouts’ view, you found a big league ballplayer by driving sixty thousand miles, staying in a hundred crappy motels, and eating god knows how many meals at Denny’s all so you could watch 200 high school and college baseball games inside of four months, 199 of which were completely meaningless to you” all for “….the one time out of two hundred when you would walk into the ballpark, find a seat on the aluminum plank in the fourth row directly behind the catcher, and see something no one else had seen — at least no one who knew the meaning of it.”

They constantly read, watch, attend events, and talk with a wide range of others with good eyes and ears. When the urban analyst Jane Jacobs died recently, I was struck by a fact about how she came to write The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which was cited in her obituary by The New York Times. Ms. Jacobs’ 1958 Fortune article on urban downtowns, the article said, “caught the attention of the Rockefeller Foundation, which offered [her] a grant to write about cities. Two grants and three years later, she produced her manuscript on the Remington typewriter that she used until her death.”

They keep a close eye on young people. Last year, a New York Times article examined the New York art dealer Jack Tilton and his travels to Columbia and Yale Universities to look at the work of promising art students. “As collectors, art fairs, and galleries keep growing, while first-rate artworks for sale decrease,” the article said, “dealers and collectors are scouting the country’s top graduate schools looking for the Warhols of the future.”

So program officers should be more like talent scouts, more like the great earlier ones – the Frederick Gateses, Paul Ylvisakers, Margaret Mahoneys, dare I say Joel Fleishman, whose handiwork I see every day in the institutions and leaders whose work was catalyzed by Joel and Harvey Dale in their years at Atlantic. Each of these grantmakers had tremendous eyes and instincts, qualities too often bred out through the relentless professionalizing of our … profession. My dozen years of experience in hiring at foundations has has taught me that the ideal program officer is a mix of enthusiast and critic. Too much in one direction or the other, and you get distortion that does not lead to good grantmaking. So passion is one attribute you are looking for. You want someone who believes in something – a cause, an organization, a leader – enough to be a strong and effective advocate. You want the program officer to stand by the grant, not to be, as some wag said about liberals, the kind of person who can’t take his own side in a fight. But you also need a strong critical faculty – the ability to raise the right questions and see through hype. A program officer who can’t do that, who won’t honestly present the risks and dangers along with the promise and potential, won’t have the credibility she needs to make a case, and won’t acquire the confidence that a good program officer needs.

One reason this is extremely important is that most foundations, whatever their formal grant approval structure, operate on a presumption of deference to the frontline grantmaker. If Boards approve grants, they defer – or ought to – to the professional process that led to the docket. The President of the foundation asks tough questions of program directors and others down the line, and sharpens the case for the grant, but if he or she is overturning grant recommendations, blocking them, or micromanaging them, something is off with the system. If it is working well, much confidence is vested in the program officer. So it is critical that the person in that seat understands the context in which he or she is working, finds the best people and places to make grants to, and strikes the right balance between critic and advocate.

But there is more. In the program officer or higher leadership level – the director of a division or program, for example – you want a thought leader. You want someone who gets up in the morning and thinks about how to advance the field for which they are responsible at the foundation. Someone who is constantly learning and sharing that knowledge. Someone who has a point of view to advance without being doctrinaire or sectarian. Someone who has a strong sense of political and social context, not a tunnel view about their particular issue or field. You might call it a vision thing.

Over the years I have learned, sometimes the hard way, that if this quality is missing in a key program person, you cannot put it there. It is at times the case that a thought leader has weaker management skills or is hard to manage themselves, or has difficulty translating ideas into strategies. You can compensate for that most of the time from below or from the side, or you can rein them in from above when necessary. But it is usually not possible to make up for a deficit in the other direction.

I’ve focused here on the grantmaking, or what is usually called program side of a foundation, which is my emphasis today. But you can’t run a great foundation, or any effective foundation or institution, without a strong operational staff, and let me add a few words about them.
Atlantic has a model that I did not invent, so I can praise it without indulging in self-regard. It is the most integrated system of grantmaking that I know of. The program officer – again, “executive” in our parlance – is in the lead on grants and strategy, but she or he is backed up by a team that works together on all aspects of a grant from very early on. A finance officer, the rest of whose job focuses on Atlantic’s own finances, helps examine the grantseeking organization’s budget and financial statements. A communications officer reviews parts of the proposal pertaining to public education and use of media. An evaluation unit officer – and Atlantic is unusual among foundations in having a strong in-house strategic learning and evaluation team – works with both the program executive and the prospective grantee in designing a shared plan for what success looks like, what will be measured, and over what time period. If there is an information technology or advocacy component, we draw on Atlantic’s in-house resources or close consultants for assistance.

This does a few things. First, it assures that while the program officer may effectively draw on this well of resources, not all of which come into play in every grant, he or she does not need to be equally expert in budgeting, media and a range of other issues. Second, it assures that critical questions are raised and answered early in the grantmaking process, not as an afterthougtht. And finally, it assures that the foundation professionals on the operational side are not marginalized as back-office types, as sometimes happens in elite foundations. It makes use of all their professional skills in a way that is more closely connected to the foundation’s mission.

In foundations that are more traditionally structured, and there is more of a bifurcation between program and operational staff, there are still a few things to be said. You want operations staff who feel closely connected to the mission of the institution, even though they may previously have worked in an unrelated sector. In my experience, financial analysts, I.T. officers, investment staff, human resources professionals, receptionists and all those who are critical to making a foundation or any institution work derive a great deal of satisfaction and pride from knowing that the work they do serves an important social goal. Anyone managing such professionals should keep that in mind, recognize it and celebrate it. For their parts, such professionals need to see their jobs as facilitating the foundation’s mission and program goals, not setting up a series of hurdles to be overcome. I have been fortunate, for example, in both OSI and at Atlantic, to work with general counsels who see their jobs – within the actual limits of the law, of course – as trying to ease the way to some audacious thing the foundation is trying to do, not tell you why you can’t.

In my year at Atlantic I’ve had the new professional experience of relating to a crack investment team, based in London. (At OSI, there was no in-house investment group, as George Soros took care, as it were, of our money.) This has been a learning experience for me, not only in how to relate as a manager to highly-skilled professionals in a field you barely understand, but in seeing connections that I never had an opportunity to see before between grant “investments” and financial investments – the due diligence involved in selecting fund managers, the time it takes for an investment to yield benefits, the knowledge base necessary to make informed judgments — all these matters of practice and performance are very much akin to what we do on the grantmaking side, and drawing our chief investment officer more closely into the overall work of the foundation has helped him to appreciate the connections from the other side. Both his team and the larger foundation benefit greatly.

I have two other things I want to say about talent in philanthropy before I close. The first has to do with keeping staff accountable and connected to the real world, when the great danger in our institutions is that you will actually come to believe you are as smart and wise as your grantees and grantseekers say you are. One way is to create in a foundation a questioning culture that is open to the world, seeking to attract scrutiny and criticism, not avoid it. What Hewlett and other foundations have done in having groups like the Center for Effective Philanthropy conduct grantee satisfaction surveys and post the results online, what Annie E. Casey has done in writing honestly about program missteps, what I am planning at Atlantic in inviting two critics of philanthropy, Pablo Eisenberg on the left and Bill Schambra on the right, to come to the foundation and critique our program strategies before an audience of board and staff members, no holds barred – yes, I am probably a bit crazy to try that, but check back with me afterward – all of these are steps in the right direction. But there are also relatively simple, quieter measures that can go a long way.

One is sabbaticals. I am a big fan of policies, like the Open Society Institute’s, which provide three months’ paid leave every five years to provide a break for learning, rest and reflection. The way I used my first OSI sabbatical, which stimulated others who followed me to do the same, was to spend it seeing the world from the viewpoint of a grantee, volunteering to work with prisoners returning to the neighborhood in which I then lived, in Brooklyn, who were participating in a program run with OSI support by the Fifth Avenue Committee, a community-based organization. Brad Lander, then FAC’s director, was brave to invite a key funder to move into his office for three months, but I learned a lot from the relationships I formed with the former prisoners in the program, relationships which in several cases I maintain to this day. The issues of incarceration and re-entry became more personal to me, and as for the organization itself, exposure to its weaknesses as well as its considerable strengths drew OSI closer to FAC, and put us in a position to be even more helpful over time.

Another way to keep grounded is to serve on the board of a non-profit organization while working in philanthropy — ideally a small one, and of course not one to which you are making a grant. Sitting in an organization’s budget review, hearing the way staff and board members talk about their prospects for grants from various foundations, knowing the program consequences if an expected award doesn’t come through, getting a glimpse of the often cavalier, arrogant and inconsistent ways in which too many foundations deal with grantseekers, helps you reflect on your own practice and makes you a better grantmaker when you return to work the next morning.

A final way of assuring accountability, which Ford has traditionally used, is to build in rotation. A Ford program officer serves for six years, then leaves the foundation or moves on to another position dealing with a different area and set of grantees, or broader management responsibilities. From the foundation’s point of view, this built-in attrition gives a lot of flexibility. If someone is not working out, they can be moved on without the drama of adverse personnel action, and if a new leader wants to reshape the foundation, in a few years’ time she can put her stamp on it without the disruption of firings. (Though let me observe parenthetically that too many foundations which impose accountability metrics on grantees exempt their own staff from high performance standards, demoralizing to the field and much less excusable in well-heeled foundations for not dealing with mismatched or non-performing staff than in other organizations without the range of human resources tools at their disposal.) From the field’s point of view, the results of rotation can be mixed; from the program officer’s point of view, it may be enough time to develop a strategy and relationships but not so much as to become entrenched. While few foundations have followed Ford’s lead in this practice, I like the idea in principle because it preserves better than anything else I can think of the notion that foundation officers hold temporary power and will at a point certain return to civilian life, as it were.

Since today marks my first anniversary as Atlantic’s President, I would be remiss in not focusing my final thoughts on youth and aging, two of our four program areas. In contrasting philanthropy with many parts of the business world, where hiring young people is the norm, I came close to suggesting that a foundation is no place for a young person. Indeed I think that it is desirable for those who wield power in philanthropy to have had life experience on the other side of things before coming into the post. I know I am a better grantmaker because for years I raised money and dealt with foundations, and have scars from that and from many issue advocacy battles in which I was engaged. But it’s important to remember that many young people are capable of enormous responsibility and entrepreneurship, and it is not uncommon in other fields – politics, for example, where two famous speakers of the Texas House of Representatives, Sam Rayburn and Ben Barnes, were in their mid-twenties when they took over the gavel – for talented young people to rise rapidly. I was associate director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, then the largest ACLU state branch, at 24, and appointed director of the Texas ACLU before my thirtieth birthday, so I am hardly in a position to suggest that younger people should wait years for leadership opportunities. And I was proud at the Open Society Institute to have hired more program officers under 30, and not just to work on our youth programs, than any other foundation that I know of.

As for older adults, on the one hand there is no dearth of people over 60 on foundation staff and boards, and in the non-profit field generally it is too often the case that the leadership pipeline is clogged by longtime CEOS and other senior staff who are not ready to move on. But the reason many are not ready to move on is not just personal, but structural. As people live much longer, and have much to contribute, well beyond what is traditionally considered retirement age, it is not so easy to find a new job in that time of your life, and little we do as a society helps with this passage. So people stay on in posts too long because they don’t want to do nothing, but can’t imagine or make happen an alternative – particularly when they don’t yet qualify for Medicare. There are philanthropic and public policy solutions to this, and I’m proud that Atlantic is a leader in promoting what Civic Ventures President Marc Freedman calls “encore careers” – opportunities for social entrepreneurship in the last decades of work and life. There are many older organizational leaders in non-profits who would make rich contributions to philanthropy, for instance, if we could ease the connections and structure work to provide the flexibility that many older persons crave – and that indeed all of us deserve. I want to give a lot more thought to these possibilities in my second year at Atlantic.

Young or old, those who have the rare privilege of directing a foundation’s funds to good projects, people or causes need to be curious about the world around them, constantly learning; humble about the derived and temporary power they hold, alert to ways of checking and countering it; and capable of thinking strategically, making ongoing adjustments based on emerging knowledge and changing circumstances.

I appreciate the opportunity, Joel, that you have given me to reflect for a few moments about the most critical management decision in a foundation or any organization – hiring. I haven’t touched on what makes a good foundation president, because I am a little too close to it to have any distance or perspective in the matter, and in any case, I have never hired one. A vision and the ability to communicate it, to build and tell the story of the foundation and the work it supports seems to me essential, at least in foundations that, like most today, seek to engage with the world, unlike Atlantic in its anonymous days. But in the closet or out of it, a foundation is known by its judgments: whose work merits support, and whose does not. And since those judgments are exercised by humans, informed by whatever metrics they can muster but at the end of the day resting on judgment, we’d better hope that whoever is picking the pickers is a good picker too.