Say the word "foundation" to most people and they respond "grantmaker." That's usually the profession's fault, whose members nearly always lead with the amount of grants they made the year before.
Well, first of all, a foundation is not a foundation is not a foundation. Community foundations are different from private foundations are different from corporate foundations are different from family foundations, and every nonprofit better know why.
Second, even within each category, the "good" ones do much more than give away money. They are – in my opinion – innovative, hands on, aware, and humble. And it doesn't matter the amount of your resources.
That's whom I get to work with.
Front row seat in the arts
After earlier careers in journalism and government, I first joined the grantmaking world as senior staff with the Massachusetts Council on the Arts and the Humanities, at the time the nation's second largest state arts funder (after the state of New York). Under the direction of the visionary Anne Hawley, who was later to direct the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the arts council made exciting incursions into arts in education, folk heritage, artists fellowships and housing, public art, financial stabilization of key cultural groups, and preserving design standards of rural towns, among other initiatives.
I also was the Council's spokesperson during local and national controversies, such as that at the National Endowment for the Arts over its funding of artist Robert Mapplethorpe.
I learn about charitable people and their dreams
| One of the my most powerful and painful experiences at The Rhode Island Foundation was managing a charitable fund to help stabilize the survivors of one of the worst nightclub fires in American history. The Station Nightclub fire, on a Thursday night in 2003, killed 100 patrons and seriously injured dozens more. Thankfully, thousands of New Englanders donated more than a million dollars to help them get counseling, cover medical bills, pay rent, and even send children to camps that deal with tragedy. The following year, I went with a group of folks who were emotionally ready to the annual National Burn Congress in Cleveland. They – and I – were reassured to meet people who, though permanently challenged by their injuries, were living positive and productive lives.
From there, I fell in love with community foundations, thanks to my 13 year "education" with The Rhode Island Foundation. The nation's estimated 700 community foundations – now joined by hundreds around the world – connect charitable people to the causes and nonprofits they most care about, forever, if they choose to establish endowments.
Every day was an adventure; I seldom took vacations. During my tenure, I:
- helped grow the Foundation from $150 million to $500 million in assets
- established and ran its first communications department
- helped create its first development department
- initiated the statewide grantmakers association
- coordinated the Station Nightclub Fire Relief Fund, a collaborative philanthropic response to one of Rhode Island's worst human disasters
- conducted comprehensive interviews of more than 300 large-gift ($10,000 or more) fundholders
- monitored the creation and early years of the state’s first National Public Radio station
- won five national awards for newsletters, website, and annual and special reports
- served as a National Standards reviewer, member of the national marketing initiative, and a frequent panelist and presenter for the Council on Foundations
- was named a German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Fellow to serve in Great Britain; as a guest speaker to the Portuguese community foundation movement in Lisbon, and a participant in international philanthropy conferences in Athens, Budapest, and Brussels.
Keeping the connection through consulting
I finally dragged myself away from The Rhode Island Foundation for what I expect will be my last professional adventure, consulting with nonprofits and foundations. (I discuss my fun with nonprofits in another section.)
I've been fortunate to conduct communications audits for the Hampton Roads Community Foundation, facilitate strategic planning for Akron Community Foundation, organize a merger for the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, and consult on the Community Foundation for Greater Memphis website. (I don't mention all the fantastic community foundations and their leaders here, but you'll see photos of their work once I get them to send them to me!)
|In 1952, Florence Smith left a very special bequest to what is now the Hampton Roads Community Foundation. She wanted to ensure that Virginians could attend medical school regardless of their families' incomes. Thanks to the wonder of community foundations and HRCF's careful stewardship, her dream has succeeded big time. She can take credit for educating 750 physicians so far...and the money is still there!
I also worked with New England's three RAGs (regional associations of grantmakers) on a media project, and with private foundations like the American Savings Foundation, whom I helped communicate a year-long executive transition.
And yes, I'm also proud to have been associated at one time with two "alternative" foundations: RESIST and Haymarket People's Fund.
Life just doesn't get much better than this.
I'm always surprised to remember that I worked in government three times. But there you are; those experiences taught me a lot about how the bureaucratic world works.
One time was insignificant. I worked nearly two years as a layout and design "artist" for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. The high point, truly, was meeting Rosalynn Carter when the First Lady was attending a meeting in our building. Oh, and I learned about how crazy people get about logos. In the 1970s, we ushered through the one it still uses today; they probably never wanted to go through that hell again.
I also worked for the Massachusetts state arts council, which at the time creatively distributed more than $20 million annually in the pursuit of a more curious world. I write about that experience in Working with foundations.
Working on human services issues changed my life forever
I'm writing here about serving the late and very great Massachusetts State Senator Jack Backman, when he was chair of the Senate Human Services Committee, until he retired in 1987.
The most progressive legislator in the State House, Jack demanded a staff of activists and systems changers, and rated us on our hellraising, not our obedience to the rules. I like to think I fit the bill. After staging surprise visits on state mental health wards, investigating unfair treatment of people with disabilities, uncovering the death of a woman in restraints in a public ward, aiding activists to extend special ed provisions, and helping him fight the unregulated use of electroshock, he named me co-director of our rowdy staff of 11.
Matters have a tendency to return to an unsatisfactory state unless you are continually vigilant, but I hope I helped move the needle on some:
- organized advocacy campaigns prohibiting placement of children on adult wards of mental hospitals
- fought to raise welfare benefits up to nationally-established poverty guidelines
- uncovered and led investigation into suspicious deaths in state health facilities, resulting in changes to seclusion and restraint laws
- initiated and staffed a legislative commission investigating federal abuse of the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) system
- issued a major report on children’s mental health services in Massachusetts
- co-directed an 11-person staff that investigated issues in corrections, mental health, youth services, elderly affairs, all welfare programs, and disabilities
- analyzed, proposed, and filed human services legislation
- handled the office's press relations.
From journalism to communicating
Armed with a degree in journalism from Penn State University, I expected to be a newspaperman for the rest of my life. The times were auspicious; Vice President Spiro Agnew had just resigned and the Watergate hearings began my first year out of college.
My first two jobs were for weekly newspapers, the first as editor in South Bend, IN, and the second as production manager in Wilkes-Barre, PA. I enjoyed the small city life and "broke" a few stories. But I also learned that people mostly care about that which affects them on a day-to-day basis, and I agreed. Alas, neither paper is still in print. I swear, it wasn't my fault!
In Washington, DC, I joined the staff of Broadcasting magazine, now Broadcasting & Cable, the insider journal for the trade. I covered purchases and sales of TV and radio stations and the burgeoning world of cable networks. And then I left to hitchhike across the United States.
My last "formal" media gig; I give up the pretense of neutrality
My next move was to Boston, where I left all efforts to being an objective journalist behind. After helping compile a directory to the region's progressive nonprofits (The People's Yellow Pages), I became co-editor of the Beacon Hill Update, a biweekly journal monitoring political issues affecting low-income people. We looked at every piece of legislation, every budget item, every vote, and every controversy in the human services world. Advocates loved us; legislators and agency bureaucrats, not so much.
My topics were public health, juvenile justice, child care, social services, and mental health. My favorite stories were a four-part series on de-institutionalization and an analysis of class action suits against the Massachusetts Departments of Social Services, Mental Health, and Mental Retardation (then named).
The nature of my role – and that of my colleagues – necessarily took us beyond our desks. We lectured extensively and conducted seminars on the legislative process and social issues.
When the very progressive chairman of the Senate Human Services Committee invited me to work on the same issues for him – with no compromise – I said 'goodbye' to journalism and 'hello' to daily activism and communicating.
Better to ask, what issue haven't I loved?
I'm not sure whether journalism trained me to be curious, or whether I went into journalism because I was the type to be curious. Given all the movements of the 1970s, well, I became a curious activist.
I met a lot of nonprofits through my "jobs"
My roles at the Massachusetts arts council (see "foundations") and for the Senate Committee on Human Services (see "government") included a "hands on" approach with every imaginable human services and arts nonprofit, from legal services for the developmentally disabled to families of prisoners to defending the right of artists to be controversial.
Thirteen years at The Rhode Island Foundation added greatly to my "portfolio". During my time, we helped build the Women's Fund of Rhode Island, the Black Philanthropy Fund, and Equity Action, an LGBTQ fund. I was involved in all three.
We also managed about $8 million in animal humane endowments, preservation of historical documents, and scholarships for just about every profession. Was involved in those, too.
If I had a favorite nonprofit, which I guess I can admit now, it was Oasis International. Several Nigerian professionals who moved to Rhode Island around the 1970s wanted to ensure that their children became good Americans but also learned their heritage. They created one of the most caring grassroots groups I've ever met.
Even more passionate people and ideas since then
|The Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress has existed as an all-volunteer organization for 25 years – doing great work reassuring new parents and telling educators and health professionals how better to do their jobs. But the nonprofit's visionary leaders knew they had to take the risky leap to a paid staff and a full-time organization if they were to make long-term change.
I knew nothing at all about Down syndrome when they engaged me to conduct the first three-year strategic plan. Though they have been remarkably successful five years later – even I'm surprised – I'm the one who has benefited from all that I've learned from them. We just completed designing a second five-year strategic plan.
I'm pleased to say that other nonprofits have invited me inside their doors and hearts.
Over 15 years total consulting, I have:
- facilitated two major strategic plans, and continue to offer support, for the Massachusetts Down Syndrome Congress
- manage the social media for the Washington County Coalition for Children and South County Healthy Bodies, Healthy Minds, both in Rhode Island
- designed and produced publications for Educators for Social Responsibility, ACCION International, and the Committee for Responsible Genetics, all in Cambridge, MA
- conducted a review of operations for the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature, Abilene, TX
- provided media consulting for the Massachusetts Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, the Boston Association for the Education of Young Children, and the New England Foundation for the Arts
- consulted on instituting a planned giving program for Rhode Island's housing and homeless visionary, Crossroads RI
- led seminars in publications design and production for the Tufts University Social Policy Institute, MIT, the Cambridge Center for Adult Education
And every bit of it has been, and continues to be, fascinating.