Philcon_smallThis past Friday, I attended the 5th Annual Yale School of Management Philanthropy Conference. I have quite a bit of history with this young conference, having co-Chaired last year’s edition and put together a panel for 2007’s (part I, part II). My report on this one, “Harnessing Resources and Leveraging Strengths,” won’t be quite as extensive, but here were a few of the highlights of what I saw.

  • During the first panel, “Leveraging Resources Across Sectors in the Field of International Development,” the Millennium Challenge Corporation’s Franck Weibe had some absolutely scathing criticism for philanthropy’s collective inability to talk about failure. “We fail a lot” in international development, he said; “it’s kind of shocking.” Furthermore, he continued, program officers who don’t admit how often they’re failing are “part of the problem.” “It’s amazing how often donors continue to fund things that they know are failing!” Instead of “failing better,” he suggested, “how about let’s just not fail as often?”
  • Later in the same panel, Olivia Leland from the Gates Foundation put forth a rather mind-boggling concept: should there be a market for donors just like there is one for charities? In other words, a mechanism by which donors would compete with each other for the privilege of donating to a particular nonprofit? I have no idea how such a thing might work in practice, but it’s intriguing to me for its potential to equalize the power dynamic and give definition to what it means to be a “good” donor.
  • Apparently the name Socially Responsible Investing (or SRI) isn’t good enough anymore; some folks want to call it Sustainable and Responsible Investing. Is there a Hall of Fame for the most overused buzzwords of the decade, and can we make “leverage” and “sustainable” the inaugural inductees?
  • During the second panel, “Alternative Investment Strategies,” I enjoyed this tidbit from Laura Berry, executive director of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility: apparently, a group of small community investors predicted the subprime mortgage crisis all the way back in 1993, but their calls for concern were (of course) ignored. Just goes to show once again how much there is for Wall Street to learn from nonprofits. Now, there seems to be a convergence from both sides, with anti-corporate types recognizing how much their lives depend on the general health of the economy, and some in the business community beginning to question whether unfettered capitalism is really the answer.
  • Gara LaMarche, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, gave a great keynote speech (though one that seemed a bit tangential to the conference theme) on manifesting social justice in philanthropy. He correctly pointed out that too often organizations focused on social justice in the community are blind to similar issues present closer to home, i.e., in their own workplace. He advocated for a tough line on board members who fail to carry their weight or exercise their duties, noting that a failure to crack down on such negligence is a tacit admission on the part of leadership that the mission of the organization isn’t important enough to risk a little social awkwardness. He also identified a need for management consultants who have the cultural sensitivities necessary to work effectively with the nonprofit sector, but shared that after a certain point, he doesn’t think additional compensation of highly-paid execs makes a difference in the quality of people you are able to attract to the sector. I enjoyed perhaps most of all the list of his top 10 management tips, which I will reproduce for you below:
    1. The lower down the management structure, the more likely the person is to know what’s going on.
    2. Don’t think you’ve heard what people are thinking just because you asked them.
    3. Don’t assume that people heard you just because they were in the room.
    4. Lead with your voice and passion.
    5. Admit your mistakes.
    6. There’s no such thing as a secret. If one other person knows, most likely someone else does too.
    7. Celebrate and acknowledge others’ contributions.
    8. Communicate – err on the side of telling people what’s going on.
    9. Respect the personal sphere.
    10. Invest the time to help people grow into their jobs, but cut your losses if it’s clear it’s not going to work out.
  • Much of the final panel, “Frameworks for Strategic Philanthropy,” focused on the role of evaluation and assessment at the leadership level in foundations and philanthropic organizations. There was much hemming and hawing about how this is a “sadly complicated” issue, but LaMarche (who served as one of the panelists after his keynote) offered an alternative perspective: apparently, some of his friends are active in the conservative philanthropy community. One time he asked one of these friends whether these (historically very effective) conservative foundations make much use of evaluation. The response was, “no, not really – we pretty much just turn on the TV.” Point taken.

One last overall observation: it was interesting to compare this experience to my two previous go-rounds with the Yale SOM Philanthropy Conference. To be honest, I felt impatient with some of the conversations this time around – as in, “we’re still talking about this?” But I think that may have to do less with the conversations and more with me; I’ve immersed myself in these discussions over the past year and a half to such a degree that my subjective standard for what constitutes a “new” insight is far higher than it once was. For example, two years ago I probably would have been shocked at Melissa Berman’s observation that 80% of total giving is done either through reputation or affiliation (i.e., you know the person who asked you), or one of the other panelists’ complaint that grant reports are sometimes not even read by foundation staff, but on Friday my reaction was more or less, “yeah, tell me something I don’t know.” I think this is the danger of being present in a conversation for a long time: you forget what’s obvious and not to the people around you. Certain things, basic facts, probably just need to be hammered home over and over again before we’ll start to see any kind of change – no matter how boring it might get in the meantime for the insiders.