Quick: What's the difference between a private foundation and a public charity? To answer, you could consult the Internal Revenue Code, or you might just as easily say: "One has money and the other needs it."
This simple truth carries profound consequences for foundation decision-making and culture, through the impact of market feedback — or the lack thereof. A private foundation (generally an independent, endowed grantmaking entity) has a fundamentally different and weaker market feedback loop than either a for-profit business or a public charity (generally an operating nonprofit). Even the smallest business receives regular feedback from its market in the form of changes in sales. In order to maintain its tax status, a public charity must constantly attract public resources to put toward its mission — and the response to these efforts is a very real, ongoing, and often painful example of market feedback. A nonprofit unable to attract sufficient funds faces an existential crisis. Negative market feedback in the form of inadequate resources presents the organization with an imperative: either change in ways that will attract the necessary resources, or risk economic failure.
In a striking contrast, no such feedback loop exists for a private foundation. Because its resources were provided by a donor in an endowment at the outset of its existence, there is never a question of economic failure. Put more simply: to survive, a private foundation need not operate successful programs or make effective grants; it need not manage its staff well, engage its board in generative thinking, or meaningfully participate in larger conversations about its work. So long as it achieves the low bar set by the law (meeting payout requirements, paying excise tax, etc.), it has nothing to fear. The only external measure of its success is whether it remains in good standing with the IRS and the state in which it is incorporated. Beyond that, accountability begins and ends with itself.
This unique situation is a source of jealousy, impatience, and frustration among nonprofit leaders, who find it hard to imagine a world not dominated by their continuous need to fundraise. For the foundation, however, this insularity removes one of the most valuable inputs for any organization: frequent, timely, and accurate market feedback.
What is "the market" for a private foundation, anyway? If we think of a market as, collectively, those who consume (or might consume) an organization's products and services, the market for private foundations is composed of those public charities that comprise its current, past, and potential future grantees.
One oddity of this situation is that it reverses the usual market dynamic. Businesses sell to customers in exchange for money. The private foundation's product is money, which it gives to its customers. Given this counterintuitive arrangement, philanthropy has a more difficult time than other industries getting honest feedback from customers. For one thing, at a private foundation it is always boom time: whether the economy is up or down, "customers" continuously clamor for its product, money!
Not only do grantees besiege the foundation with requests for money, they do so by a more or less sophisticated application of that essential grant-seeking trait: fawning. Grantseekers commonly validate the foundation's ideas as nothing short of genius, thanking their program officers for sharing their wisdom, when in fact the nonprofit's own people are likely to know far more about the work their organization does than the staff of a foundation. Potential grantees will acquiesce to the funder's demands, no matter how onerous or outrageous, ill-informed, or careless. They will endure duplicative requirements, inefficiencies, multiple layers of bureaucracy, and stultifying decision-making delays designed for the foundation's convenience, not the needs of its grantees. If the foundation sets up hoops, the nonprofit willingly (although unhappily) jumps through them. After all, it needs the money.
This understandable dynamic, and the power imbalance it creates, further exacerbates the lack of honest feedback that is the norm for foundations. Unless it is careful, a foundation can find itself living in a self-referential bubble of its own making. Its finances are assured, its ideas (both well-considered strategies and idiosyncratic whims) consistently validated by customers, its mildest suggestions received as nuggets of wisdom, its burdensome bureaucratic requirements followed without complaint.
None of this is trivial. The private foundation must work against this powerful wave of empty validation or risk intellectual death internally and doing more harm than good in the field.
Over the past twenty years, some private foundations have taken steps to address this troubling dynamic. Some large foundations offer their program staff term-limited positions as a way to ensure a steady inflow of new ideas (and an equally steady outflow of veteran staff before they begin to believe they are as brilliant as grantees say they are). At the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, for example, program directors and program officers serve eight-year terms.
Other foundations undertake anonymous, third-party-administered grantee surveys to gauge how well they treat grantees, often committing to share the results with the field as an external metric of success. The Center for Effective Philanthropy has provided such assessments for more than three hundred foundations, receiving feedback from more than fifty thousand grantees. Impressive, except for the fact that there are 110,000 private non-operating foundations in the U.S. that have not availed themselves of CEP's service.
Still other foundations place grantees or recipients of the services supported by the foundation on their governing or advisory boards. The California Wellness Foundation includes a number of past grantees whose experience provides "ground-truthing" for the foundation.
These and other well-intentioned steps are commendable, but they do not fully address the lack of market feedback that gives nonprofits a general read on how they are doing. Strikingly, two simple but powerful questions most nonprofits monitor diligently are just not translatable to the foundation world:
- Are more or fewer people using our services/joining as members?
- Are we attracting the dollars we need to support our work?
The lack of market feedback is not without consequences in the area where it matters most — a foundation's engagement with its grantees. Recently, foundations have congratulated themselves on taking steps in the right direction, but philanthropy, collectively, still routinely makes mistakes that hurt its intended beneficiaries, and those beneficiaries are still loath to bite the hand that feeds them. Grantee engagement is a popular approach to the problem. Stanford Social Innovation Review, in partnership with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, recently organized a whole series on the topic. The fact remains, however, that even the most engaged grantee is still at a huge power disadvantage in any conversation with a grantmaker. Careful grantee engagement may lead to positively-framed constructive feedback for the foundation (itself a huge step forward), but it seldom leads to a grantee telling a philanthropic emperor that he or she has no clothes.
Accurate market feedback within predictable bounds may be the best we can hope for, given the huge, unavoidable power differential between grantmaker and grantseeker. The world is not a fair and equitable place, but talent and character do seem to be randomly dispersed. The people making funding decisions are no more likely to be brilliant, ethical, compassionate, or "right" than the people seeking grants — yet one group holds all the cards. Thoughtful grantee engagement strategies are our best hope of balancing what will never be a level playing field. But authentic engagement requires a fundamental shift in private foundation thinking grounded in the lived reality of their grantees.
David La Piana is the founder and managing partner of La Piana Consulting, which helps nonprofits and foundations achieve their mission and accelerate their impact.