Tuesday, September 14, 2010

What can we create if we reorganize the creating?


I know, I know, I've heard the old trope - "You've seen one foundation, you've seen one foundation." But that's not really true.
  • If you've seen one foundation with 3+ staff, chances are they have an executive director, a program officer, and an admin person.
  • If you've seen a foundation with more t10+ staff, they have an executive with an admin, 5 program people, 1 grants manager, and either 1 finance person and 1 communications person or 2 finance people.
  • If you've seen a foundation with 25+ staff, they have E.D. + asst+ 2 VPs (one of evaluation) + 1 asst; 5 program officers and 5 program assistants, 3 grant mgrs and assts, 3 finance and assts; 2 communications people; 2 IT people.
  • If you've seen a foundation with 50+ staff you've been in one of the few foundations at that number. Take the example above and add proportional VPs, assts, program officers. They'll have an HR department, too.
(If you are looking at community foundations in any of the above ranges please insert donor relations/donor advisors staff and ramp up the financial side of things)

As organizational structures go foundations aren't very creative - they actually look a lot alike. Which may be because, as someone once suggested to me, the model works. (Raise eyebrows here). I tend to think it has less to do with results than with institutional isomorphism. I find the inherent organizational similarities between foundations regardless of size, age, or mission to be odd.

Which is why I loved this post about orchestras. If ever there was a body that we would assume took a single form it is the classical music orchestra. X number of strings, Y number of woodwinds, Z for the percussion section. Arrange it in a seating hierarchy that hasn't changed much in 300 years. Put someone in tails, give 'em a baton, a score and a podium - voila!

Not anymore. In one of the examples, the Hamburg Philharmonic put its 100 players in 50 different locations around the city. Connected them with audio/visual monitors. And they played - conducted from atop the city's highest church.

In another example individual musicians from all over the world auditioned independently and online to be part of a YouTube symphony concert at Carnegie Hall.

Will these forms create great new music? Maybe. Maybe not.

But if ever there was a "scripted" form it is the classical orchestra.* So to be creative with that form is to really step outside the everyday and ask Why? Why do we play this way? Sit in this order? Select our colleagues in this way? And what if we tried it a different way? What might we learn? What might we do differently, how will the music sound?

To my mind, the experimenters in these orchestras were all asking "What can we create if we reorganize how we do the creating?" And that is a question worthy of philanthropic consideration.

*Hamburg even arranged its musicians around the city in the same "shape" that they would have been had they been in a hall - see the picture up top - an orchestra superimposed on a city.


Anonymous said...

Loved the YT Symphony - How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Upload!

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks Beth - the YT Symphony Channel is fascinating. Take some time and listen to the interviews with all the applicants.

My personal favorite is the arrangement of the orchestral sections around the city. Whatever the reasons that layout works in a Hall - acoustics, tempo, hearing your section - were all thrown out the window when they spread out the musicians, yet they chose to stick with it on a dispersed and broad scale. I'd love to have eavesdropped on the discussion they had to make those choices....


Carol Stabler said...

So...Lucy, how do you recommend that we reorganize the foundation structure?

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thank you! for asking - I've got to go lead the seminar I wrote about in this post http://philanthropy.blogspot.com/2010/09/time-lapse-video-of-change.html

right now so I can't fully answer this, but I'll be back.

Realizing that my point is - there is no "one size fits all" and that form should follow function, let me say 2 quick things. In the familiar form (the ones in the post) form follows function - its just that the function being given priority is meeting regulatory guidelines, not making change in the world.

These are two ends of a dynamic tension for foundations - rules/payout/accountability and making change.

here are some outlines of places where I think reconsideration is worthy (I'll be back with more)

1) Are you an orchestra or a quartet. Given how few foundations have 50+ staff, why do they all have EDs (conductors). Why doesn't the role of music leader rotate? (Apologies to musicians, I'm messing with your expertise here while killing a metaphor).

2) Do you need program experts or relationship managers? Can you outsource the program expertise (I can think of dozens of ways to do this) and focus instead on finding the people in your community/issue area who get things done?

3) What about "stringers" remote scouts who can stay on the edges and help identify new ideas, networks, issues of use to you and your partners

4) Why do you need your own back office - unless you're doing complicated PRI/MRI/Lending (and probably even then) - there are probably cheaper, more accurate, pooled resources on which to run finance and grants management. Put the saved dollars back into the community.

More to come - please tell me your thoughts as well. My guidelines for the thought experiment

- Regulations and Social Goals both matter - organize around intended goals without violating the rules, not the other way around.

- what do you need to own and what can you rent?

- networks are viable options at many levels

- money can be used in many ways - grants, loans, nvestments - organize around that expertise

And yes, I know, founding donors' and their family values and legacies matter - these need to be considered first. It will be harder to change an existing structure than to build new ones that integrate social networks, expert crowds, electronic payments, pooled financial instruments, etc. from the get go.

Back soon - hope to see many others share their thoughts as well. Thanks


Hildy Gottlieb said...

Oh I do love this question, and your thinking about the restructuring, Lucy!

I often wonder what foundations might look like if both form and function stemmed from a more deliberate consideration of purpose: "To create a healthy, vibrant community, what might our role be? How might we best support such an endeavor(s)?"

And then, "What would we have to do (mission) and be (form, culture, values, habits) to accomplish that?"

I would love to see examples of foundations that have had these deliberate sorts of conversations about purpose, where form and function have been affected by the answers to such questions. I hope folks will share.

Thanks so much for such a terrific topic to grapple with!


Anonymous said...

I didn't know these were the standard number for a foundation thanks for the insight, at Butterfly Works (foundation) we have 6 designers, 6 organisers, 2 programmers and 3 part time support folk for finance and IT, greetings Emer Beamer

Richard Mittenthal said...

While the examples of restructuring and reseating are fascinating, the one problem orchestras (and quartets) have not been very good at solving is head count. Quartets, by definition, require four people. Symphonies and concertos are written with specific numbers of players/parts in mind.Of course there are transcriptions for solo piano and, if an orchestra was in dire straits, it could play a Beethoven symphony with a smaller complement of players. However, it would please neither the composer nor the audience.

The related question for foundations, along with can you restructure, reorganize and do things differently is "Do you really need all those people? Could you do the same or better work with fewer staff? would the composer(donor) or audience (grantseekers and other stakeholders)notice the difference? Might they be happier with more grant money and less admin costs? Sometimes I wonder.

Lucy Bernholz said...

Richard - Absolutely! I think the real question that Foundations now have the opportunity to ask themselves is what do they need staff for and what can they outsource?

Here are some models that I think are interesting:

The Associated Press - stringer experts around the globe that you use as needed. Global GreenGrants kind of uses advisors in this way.

The Skoll multi-org model. One org for long term issues (social enterprise), one for urgent threats, and a commercial media company to influence public opinion. All investments - plus family funds - managed by one, socially purposed investment company, Capricorn, that carries social goals into investing. Specialization with shared infrastructure - two nonprofits and two commercial entities.

The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and/or Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinsons. Staff includes investment managers and scientists - funds are used for grants or equity investments. Expertise is in getting competitive organizations - government, industry, and academia to share.

Who has others?


Lucy Bernholz said...

Butterfly Works - those standards are based on observation, not deep analysis - though perhaps The Foundation Center has the data that would allow us to be more exact?

Does Butterfly Works donate design expertise or funds? Would love to see your job descriptions!


Bradford Smith said...


It feels like you were holding back on this one...distracting us with interesting tales about the Hamburg orchestra and its performance art/musical endeavors while leaving it for your readers to draw you out on your own thoughts about foundations.

Early on in my career, I met a consultant who had been a V.P. in a multinational corporation, dropped out, went to live on a commune (remember those?) and reincarnated as a consultant. He told me something that has always stuck in my mind: "when organizations no longer know what their mission is, they reorganize."

I was an officer of a long-standing foundation that had some 500 staff and President of a newcomer that had 36 staff. The only thing I can say with certainty about the relationship between assets, spending and staff size is that advances in technology allow anyone starting a foundation today to have a lighter staffing structure and centralize administrative processes in one location.

The other thing I have learned is that the world will successfuly resist whatever rational structure you in which you try to organize it. The really important thing is not the structure but how you unleash creativity and innovation by working across the hierarchy and boxes.