(Photo: 416Style, Creative Commons, Flickr)
It is always nice when ideas from this blog get picked up elsewhere. My last two posts, on breaking new boxes and considering alternatives, came from my reflections as I begin research on the possibility that technology has led to fundamental changes in philanthropic behavior. They are my attempts to ask "why do we do the things we do?" The post, "Consider the alternatives" got picked up and picked apart, and that's a nice thing. It is sometimes a bit surprising to me which posts get picked up and discussed. But what was not surprising to me was that perpetuity, one of about 50 ideas floated in the piece, is the one that seemed to get the most traction in terms of discussion. It got twittered, and blogged, and re-blogged and all of that is good. Perpetuity and payout - folks love to talk about those two pieces of the puzzle.
But perpetuity is only part of the picture. Really, why do foundations do any of the things they do? Why do foundations in 2009 - all 70-odd-thousand of them - look so much alike structurally? Yes, I know the old trope, "You've seen one foundation and you've seen one foundation." That may be true at some level, but it is also true that if you've seen one foundation you've probably seen 1/3 - 1/4 of the prevalent models. The differences will all be in the trimmings, not in the underlying structures, norms, practices, or expectations.
Even more puzzling, why do those structures all look so much like the original model, 1913 Rockefeller Foundation? Why do they have endowments, grant departments, finance functionaries, proprietary software, offices, and various levels of management? Why do board-run foundations, or those with no staff members, operate so much like their 55,000 peers - with deadlines or quarterly meetings or 5% payout limits? And foundations with staff, why are the departmental lines so similar and the job titles and descriptions so interchangeable (regardless of foundation interests, size, or location)?
Given how much everyone - inside foundations and outside - complains about how slow they are, or how unwieldy their processes, or how unwelcoming their applications, or duplicative their due diligence, or blah blah blah - why do they do these things? It doesn't seem possible that these practices survive because they work well, please the customers, or even please the board and staff who choose them and re-create them. Institutional isomorphism is one of those graduate school concepts that is not only fun to say, but true to life - organizations mimic like organizations, even when it doesn't necessarily serve their purposes.
Now, I don't intend to take the easy road here. It is not enough for me to just criticize, I want to point to real change and use the examples I can find to spark iterative, and perhaps, eventually, rapid and widespread change (one can hope). So please don't read this post or the previous two as just jabs to the gut of foundations. I'm posting my real-time reflections from my daily work and from a research project I'm working on looking for real transformations in how philanthropy functions now compared to in the past, and where it might go in the future.
I spend a lot of time writing about the changes all around foundations - in the philanthropic marketplace, the social sector, the financial systems, global information sharing, etc. etc. And I do have examples of philanthropic foundations that are different (and new practices that matter) which I will include in the article. But as I do the research it is the isolated nature of these "change cases" that stares back at me. Sure, I can find examples, but why are they still just examples?
Why hasn't something done to foundations what Craigslist did for job hunters, GE did to individual power plants, eBay did for garage sales, the Internet and bad management are doing to newspapers, iTunes did to the music business, water treatment systems did for public health, Obama did to political fundraising, telephones did to the telegraph, cool new laptops did to secretarial pools, television did to the drive-in, the PDF did for document sharing, or Alice Waters did for sustainable agriculture? That is, why hasn't something either inside or outside organized philanthropy fundamentally altered recognizably and admittedly bad institutional practices and replaced them with something better?
It has been almost 100 years since the modern foundation was born. We've seen every one of the changes listed above in that century, plus literally countless others (space exploration, the end of Apartheid, satellite TV, charter schools, the creation of the EU, streaming video, etc. etc.) Quite a few things have changed in that time. What is amazing to me, truly amazing, is how little foundations have changed.