What talent do we need?

Andrew Milner

Foundations are mostly identified with the work they do – the programmes they operate, the grants they make. But what makes a good grantmaker? A good programme officer? A good foundation leader? All that many of us know about their internal arrangements or decisions are brief announcements in the ‘trade’ press about new senior appointments. On what basis do foundations make their hiring decisions and what are they looking for from their own staff? Alliance asked around …

Most important qualities
Leadership, collaboration, flexibility, judgement, passion, integrity: these were the qualities most respondents stressed. ‘We want to see how you get things done, if you understand the impact of your work and how you collaborate, as this is going to be a big part of your work in our organization,’ says Sandra Schwarzer of Open Society Foundations.

There were a few other contenders, too, humility and optimism among them, put forward by Jean Oelwang of Virgin Unite. Virgin, she says, believes ‘that those who have the greatest impact in the world have a sense of humility, mixed with hope for the future and a strong commitment to want to make people’s lives better.’ Richard Frost of the Winnipeg Foundation mentions independence of action and ‘analytical thinking and problem solving skills’. For Hilary Pennington of the Ford Foundation, ‘what is essential is an unwavering commitment to social justice.’ In addition, ‘we look for people with strong networks and sophistication about systems change, and an ability to treat grantees with respect and to manage effectively the imbalance in power relationships between funders and grantees.’

Natasha Matic of the King Khalid Foundation adds willingness to learn to this list, largely because of the difficulty of finding young staff with experience of the field in Saudi Arabia. ‘Finding good staff with the right attitude has been one of the main challenges in our work. It is very difficult to find Saudis who have these qualities and are willing to work hard and work in the non-profit sector. We have quite a lot of turnover and staffing issues.’ However, ‘our young staff are given quite a lot of responsibility from the outset and if they are willing they can learn quite a lot in a short period of time.’

The importance of shared values
For many of those we talked to, sharing the organization’s values was seen as overridingly important. Packard Foundation president Carol Larson says, ‘We look for staff that understand and embrace our foundation’s core values: integrity, respect for all people, belief in individual leadership, commitment to effectiveness, and the capacity to think big.’ ‘In the end,’ says Sandra Schwarzer, ‘you will have a lot of qualified candidates who can do the job but they may not agree with your culture and the hire turns bad.’

This is even more true for senior staff because of their special leadership responsibilities, which have to do with setting an example as well as managing the organization. ‘If the senior staff don’t set the tone in a values-based organization,’ explains Larson, ‘then the entire organization can lose its way very quickly.’ Janet Mawiyoo of Kenya Community Development Fund (KCDF) says much the same when she notes that the actions of senior staff ‘can either promote the desired organizational culture or break it’.

Senior staff
In general, when it comes to hiring senior staff, the same qualities apply only more so, with the addition of the kind of moral, administrative and intellectual leadership noted above. Hilary Pennington talks of the ‘ability to communicate and inspire’. Laurence Lien of the Lien Foundation in Singapore looks for ‘people who are entrepreneurial. They must be passionate about social change, open-minded about what works and doesn’t work, risk-taking in taking on new interventions, and persistent in ensuring results. The more senior they are, the more they must have these qualities.’

For Natasha Matic, ‘it is even more difficult to find senior level staff, especially Saudi staff since we have a requirement to hire Saudis. This is our number one issue at the foundation.’ This means the King Khalid Foundation is in effect a nursery for its own senior staff: ‘we hire people who may not have the experience and qualities needed for senior staff and we try to train them and work with them over time.’

Long service or rotation?
Most favoured a mixture of staff on long- and short-term contracts. The Winnipeg Foundation in Canada is a clear exception. They value length of service and employ only long-term permanent staff because, explains Richard Frost, ‘so much of our work is based on relationships and community knowledge that experience on the job always enhances the productivity and effectiveness of our staff.’

Jean Oelwang says Virgin’s mix of both makes for ‘an agile organization’. She goes on: ‘When we were incubating the Elders, the core team helped to shape the organization and mange the operational functions, and we complemented this with a team of external experts across a range of fields spanning from peace building through to digital communications knowledge.’

Carlos Pulido of Fundacion Merced says they introduce staff on short-term contracts to ensure a ‘match’, while Hilary Pennington says that Ford ‘has thrived with its system of limited terms for programme officers, usually six to eight years. It allows us to circulate fresh ideas into the organization on an ongoing basis.’ Again, the King Khalid Foundation’s peculiar position dictates the use of short-term contracts: ‘we have one-year contracts (with a three-month probation period), which gives us an opportunity not to renew the contract if people do not perform well. If they do well, we renew their contracts indefinitely.’

For foundations that have to raise funds themselves, the notion of permanence is rather different. Even though KCDF is in this position, Janet Mawiyoo prefers to avoid the use of short-term staff. ‘Usually,’ she says, ‘if we have confirmed funding for at least two or three years, we prefer to hire staff on confirmed contracts like two or three years (permanent in our terms) and then renew them, subject to good performance and funding availability.’

Generalist or specialist?
‘We always prefer specialists,’ says Carlos Pulido, the only one of our respondents who took this view. Again, most found a mixture to be either necessary or beneficial or both. Sandra Schwarzer looks for ‘transferable skills’ but acknowledges that, where in-depth knowledge is needed, some specialization is inevitable. ‘We welcome experience in the private sector for our roles in strategy, finance, HR, IT,’ she says, ‘as well as for roles that have a strong operational aspect.’

Hilary Pennington talks of a ‘happy medium’ and stresses the need for continuous learning. ‘You can’t succeed if your own skills are too narrow,’ she says, ‘nor if your approach is too broad.’ King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) also uses a combination: ‘We work with a core of permanent staff who need to have certain skills but basically are generalists,’ says Luc Tayart de Borms, ‘and a circle of experts around this core who give us the needed content/expert view.’ There are two main reasons for this. The first is that, if you rely on in-house expertise, you create what he calls ‘rigidity and paradigm bias around the areas of your work’. Second, the foundation is in ‘constant evolution – the issues we work on change; the financial context changes etc’, so ‘we need flexibility in our HRM policy’.

You have to know exactly what you’re looking for, believes Janet Mawiyoo. If you don’t, you run the risk of trying to fit a person you have into a role they are not suited for. However, just because you bring in someone with specialist knowledge, that doesn’t mean you should ‘compromise on the values or culture of the organization’. In other words, whether generalist or specialist, the ‘fit’ with the foundation’s values remains critical.

‘The more senior the hire and the smaller the foundation, the more likely one would hire a generalist,’ says Laurence Lien. A senior management executive would focus the foundation’s work, then hire specialists ‘to run specific programmes or arms of the foundation’. Richard Frost notes a greater demand for specialists at the Winnipeg Foundation. He believes, however, that this is ‘more a reflection of the new scale of [our foundation’s] operations than a philosophical direction’.

Degrees down the list
Few see higher education as indispensable, attaching greater importance to experience and outlook. ‘I hire first for attitude,’ says Laurence Lien, ‘I don’t care much for credentials, especially not the academic degrees that they have.’ ‘As Richard [Branson] left school at an early age and achieved what he did through his ability to dream big, to be constantly curious and to bring people together, we would be a bit hypocritical to just focus on academic background,’ says Jean Oelwang.

Experience scored high for Carol Larson, too, ‘combined with values and disposition’. For this reason, many of Packard’s recruits are at least partly known quantities: ‘Many of the programme staff who come to work for us are people we have come across previously in one way or another. Often they have worked for grantees.’

Richard Frost was the only one who specifically mentioned formal education, coupled with experience, as desirable. ‘In a growing community-building organization like our foundation,’ he says, ‘a strong education and good experience are extremely valuable assets.’

What about consultants?
Most bring in consultants because, as Laurence Lien puts it, ‘it is impossible for a foundation to be good at everything’. Like many others, the KCDF uses consultants for jobs like evaluation and organizational development so that they ‘benefit from their specialized skills, which are often expensive and hard to retain on an ongoing basis’. In fact, for most respondents evaluation is an area where outside expertise is sought, or when they are exploring a new area either thematically or geographically. Carol Larson talks of the use of consultants for ‘highly specialized skills, or in parts of the world where we are new and lack expertise on the ground’.

Because of its difficulties in finding suitably qualified staff, consultants play a big part in King Khalid Foundation’s work. In Natasha Matic’s experience, ‘independent consultants or consultants from very small consulting organizations work better for us than large consulting companies. They are more flexible; we can select the ones with the specific experience we need; they usually have much better understanding and knowledge of the local issues and needs and are willing to work with us on a longer-term basis.’

Luc Tayart points out that expertise doesn’t always need to be bought on a contract basis. ‘It can also come through partnerships: if you work on child poverty, for example, you might have a partnership with a university whereby a university professor is the scientific secretariat of an expert group or committee we create around the project on this issue. In the expert group you would have people from different backgrounds but they are all experts on the subject. In 2013 our committees around each project involved a total of 2,087 people.’

The value of the outsider
Carol Larson mentioned earlier that Packard often hires from people it has come across before and it’s a truism that there is no substitute for experience. What virtue, then, is there in bringing in people from different backgrounds? Laurence Lien says that the staff at Lien Foundation and its affiliates ‘need not have worked full-time in the social sector. In fact, many of my past hires were the corporate sector types – but they need to show that they have been engaged in the sector in some way, for example as a volunteer or donor.’ For Carlos Pulido, bringing people in from outside can ‘enrich our vision and scope’.

Moreover, many of the skills recruits have acquired in other sectors are readily transferable. Open Society Foundations, says Sandra Schwarzer, hires ‘quite a lot of people who have not worked in other foundations before joining us … I always advise candidates from other sectors to leverage their past experience: for example, if you have managed budgets, have accounting, HR or IT skills, you can join one of our support functions. If you have never worked in this sector nor bring deep expertise, it might be worth looking to get some exposure to the field through studies, volunteering, projects.’

Perhaps the biggest advantage to hiring people with others sets of experiences is that, as Jean Oelwang points out, none of us has all the answers, especially in an era when problems are seen to be multi-faceted: ‘Having team members and partners with a diverse variety of backgrounds – including commercial, third sector and government – enables us to think differently about problems and to build a deeper understanding of the issues we are dealing with,’ she remarks.

Ford, too, believes in ‘diverse perspectives and a wide range of backgrounds and expertise’. Hilary Pennington adds, ‘Where you gained your experience is not as important as the commitment to our mission and the applicability of your skills and experience to advancing that mission.’ And while, as we have seen, Packard often trawls the waters it is most familiar with, Carol Larson stresses that ‘we encourage our programme staff to gather ideas from a wide range of people and sources. If programme staff and senior staff are talking only to each other, or to people in other foundations, then they are not doing their jobs.’

Knowledge companies
In the last analysis, as Luc Tayart says, foundations are knowledge companies, not cash machines, which means that their staff, rather than their money, are their greatest asset. Whatever criteria they employ in their human resources policies, getting the right people is the most important element of their success. ‘We tend to hire people, not roles,’ says Carol Larson, and the exactness of match between qualifications and job description is likely to be less important than the qualities outlined at the start of this article: passion, judgement, willingness to learn and ability to collaborate.

And perhaps the greatest of these is willingness to learn. This is no less imperative for the other foundations than it is for the King Khalid Foundation, where suitably qualified staff are hard to find. ‘In the end,’ says Ford’s Hilary Pennington, ‘it’s essential that even the most accomplished staff members enter the organization with a desire to learn continuously.’ For Carol Larson, those who stay with Packard as she has done must ‘ensure that they are getting outside the foundation’s walls to stay current in their fields and learn from a broad range of perspectives, through site visits, active engagement with grantees, thoughtful professional development, good “listening” strategies on social media, and other means.’ She concludes: ‘As soon as someone stops learning in their job, it should be time for them to move on.’

Alliance would like to thank the following for contributing to this article

Richard Frost, CEO, Winnipeg Foundation

  • Foundation created 1921
  • 34 staff
  • Based in Canada
  • Operates mainly in City of Winnipeg

Carol Larson, president and CEO, David & Lucile Packard Foundation

  • Foundation created 1964
  • Approximately 110 staff
  • Based in US
  • Operates locally, nationally and internationally

Laurence Lien, chairman, Lien Foundation

  • Foundation created 1980
  • 3 staff
  • Based in Singapore
  • Operates nationally and regionally

Natasha Matic, Chief strategy advisor, King Khalid Foundation

  • Foundation created 1991
  • Approximately 90 staff
  • Based in Saudi Arabia
  • Operates nationally

Janet Mawiyoo, executive director, Kenya Community Development Fund

  • Foundation created in 1997
  • 25 staff
  • Based in Kenya

Operates mainly nationally

Jean Oelwang, CEO, Virgin Unite, UK

  • Foundation created 2004
  • 18 core staff
  • Based in UK
  • Operates globally

Hilary Pennington, vice president, Ford Foundation

  • Foundation created 1936
  • 390 staff
  • Based in the USA
  • Operates nationally, in 11 specific countries or regions where it has offices, and globally

Carlos Pulido, director of institutional development, Fundacion Merced

  • Foundation created 1962
  • 20 staff
  • Based in Mexico
  • Operates nationally

Sandra Schwarzer, Global Director of Human Resources, Open Society Foundations

  • Foundation created in 1979 in the US
  • 1,548 staff
  • Operates in over 100 countries

Luc Tayart de Borms, managing director, King Baudouin Foundation

  • Foundation created 1976
  • 77 staff
  • Based in Belgium
  • Operates locally, regionally, federally, Europeanwide and internationally

Andrew Milner is Alliance associate editor. Email


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