Where do the new ideas come from?

Andrew Milner

All foundations, sooner or later, must face the issue of how to avoid becoming too set in their ways, too fixed in the same views about the same areas of work – with the same people making the same grants to the same organizations. Programme officers are at the sharp end of this and many foundations have grappled with the problem of preventing them from becoming either jaded or, worse, arrogant.

How do they overcome this? Solutions range from systems for staff turnover, of the kind devised by the Ford Foundation in the 1970s, to canvassing external views in the awarding of grants and assessment of strategy as frequently as possible.

Ford’s three-year rule

Ford’s method for keeping things fresh is well known: programme officers are appointed on a fixed three-year contract, renewable once, which effectively gives them a maximum six-year life as a programme officer. As Barry Gaberman explained in a previous edition of Alliance (December 2002), ‘we have the rule because we believe that it’s important that, every so often, we have a new pair of eyes to come in and take a look at a body of work. That way, work doesn’t get stuck, with the same players being funded, the same lines of work being supported.’

The rule brings its own drawbacks, however. One of them is that it affects Ford’s memory as an institution, since some of the experience and acquired wisdom is lost when staff move on. ‘That’s why we don’t impose a time limit when it comes to our senior staff. We’ve got to have places in the institution that have a longer historical memory.’ A second consequence is that Ford is constantly recruiting key staff, which takes a lot of time and money.

For European foundations, European labour laws would, in any case, make the adoption of Ford’s three-year rule impossible, but Anthony Tomei of the Nuffield Foundation in the UK believes that turnover of staff, while helpful, is ‘less important than an organizational ethos of open-mindedness’. This, he feels, ‘pace Ford’, probably depends more on senior staff and trustees than on programme officers.

A particular danger of specialization

He sees a particular danger of narrowness and sterility in the growing specialization of foundations. They have ‘moved away from acting as general purpose grantmakers and become more focused, concentrating on a small number of well-defined programmes which they stay with for long periods.’ While he welcomes this as a positive development, it also has its risks: ‘One is that as foundations develop their own understanding and expertise they risk closing their ears to outside voices and becoming inward-looking and conservative. At the heart of the problem is the very characteristic that gives foundations their edge, namely their independence. An organization that is free to ignore outside pressures can be a powerful means of opening new debates and challenging orthodoxies. But if that freedom results in a failure to take seriously the views of others and in arrogance, then that can lead to sterility of thought, to conservatism, and worse.’

Getting the external view

How does Nuffield maintain an organizational culture that is open to ideas from outside? First, there is the way decisions about grants are taken. ‘We always seek the views of independent external expert referees (usually two or three) on grant applications,’ he says. ‘The views of referees are taken very seriously, although they are not determinative.’ Staff do not make decisions about grants themselves, though their views are influential. Decisions are taken by committees or panels which include outside members, or by trustees themselves. This means, says Tomei, that ‘staff recommendations have to be made in ways that make sense to third parties’.

Second, Nuffield uses expert committees, which have a regular turnover of members, to help plan and implement its programmes. The Foundation makes further use of outside experts in its regular (‘usually every five years’) programme reviews. It also employs an instrument that it calls the ‘Open Door’. This, explains Tomei, involves the retention of around 10 per cent of Nuffield’s annual budget for projects that lie outside its main programme areas, but within its general priority areas. He points out that this device is not unique to Nuffield: ‘Other foundations have a similar provision. Volkswagen, for example, has a funding stream called, delightfully, “Off the beaten track”, while King Baudouin Foundation (KBF) has its “Special Initiatives”.’

Finally, he says, ‘we go to great lengths to ensure that the results of the work we fund are disseminated and discussed.’

KBF – getting stale is not an issue

Luc Tayart de Borms of KBF agrees on the importance of involving external stakeholders and puts his faith in this method of ensuring the flow of ideas and creativity. ‘For us,’ he says, ‘the problem of “the same old people and the same old ideas” is not an issue.’

There are many reasons, he believes, for getting external input into the grantmaking process: you raise public confidence and ensure the accountability of your grant activities; you create a feeling of ownership and an advocacy base for the ideas that flow out of the work of your grantees. ‘In other words,’ he says, ‘this way of working creates more leverage to help achieve the foundation’s goals.’ For these reasons, KBF gives the authority to select grants not to the staff or the board but to selection committees, created for each area in which it makes grants, which comprise as wide a spectrum of people as possible: ‘academics, grassroot workers, people from the corporate world, government representatives, and so on.’

Stakeholder engagement is also a central part of designing KBF’s social justice programme, in which a ‘Listening Network’ has been established in order to bring to light new or forgotten forms of social injustice. The Network consists of 250 individuals from different backgrounds, who provide stories of the social injustices they discover in their working and living environments. The Listening Network has cast its net wide. As well as social and educational workers and representatives from the NGO sector, it has recruited police officers, shop owners, pharmacists, butchers, newsagents and hairdressers. Also involved are journalists, trades union representatives and religious leaders.

‘The Office of Second Thoughts’

There is often a problem about getting at the genuine views of certain stakeholders. Grantees, with an eye on their continued supply, are likely to tell foundations what they want to hear, and that will often be confirmation of their existing attitudes (see ‘The Power of the Chequebook’, p42). Programme officers may also find it difficult to challenge attitudes. This point is made by William Schambra of the Bradley Centre on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal in a recent article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy.[1]

In order to overcome the problem, he argues that the Gates Foundation (about whom he is particularly writing) should create what he calls an ‘Office of Second Thoughts’ – a ‘unit for systematic truth-telling within the foundation’s institutional structure’. Its purpose, he suggests, would be ‘to subject its deepest political, economic and cultural assumptions to constant and rigorous re-examination’. It should be led by some senior public figure whose eminence and experience places her/him beyond the reach of grantmakers’ patronage. In pursuit of its goal, it would interrogate sources as various as popular literature, the news media, grantees, other foundations, and people who live in the areas in which a foundation’s programmes are operating.

According to Chief Executive Patty Stonesifer, speaking at the recent Independent Sector conference, the Gates Foundation is in fact planning to create three seven-person advisory boards to help officials in the Foundation’s three main programme areas.

The view through younger eyes

So far, we have considered relatively mature foundations whose attempts to grapple with the problem are well tried. What about newer foundations which are still working out how to cross this particular bridge?

‘What works best is what makes sense given the context and texture of a foundation’s work and raison d’être,’ says Akwasi Aidoo of the newly fledged TrustAfrica.’ For TrustAfrica, this means a very diverse continent, with numerous identities and this, he believes, ‘requires us to stress turnover in our staffing, programming and institutional structures. Hence, we have term contracts for our programme staff and encourage them to move on after several years, enabling us to bring in other qualified staff from other parts of the continent.’ He believes, too, that for Africans term limits for people in authority will strike an important chord.

Another factor in choosing what he calls the ‘rotational’ approach is the nature of TrustAfrica’s work. That work stresses bringing together sectors and disciplines and crossing borders and linguistic barriers, which means new ideas must be brought regularly into the organization’s decision-making structure.

The Kenya Community Development Foundation (KCDF), founded ten years ago, follows what might loosely – and purely in the terms of this article – be described as the European model, of limiting the authority of programme officers and canvassing the views of stakeholders. ‘Programme officers,’ says Janet Mawiyoo of KCDF, ‘only make recommendations based on a certain rationale or criteria already agreed upon for qualifying applicants, but they do not make the final decisions… Those are made by the Programme Committee, which refers bigger grants (above US$7,000) to the full Board for final approval.’ However, she also notes, in the majority of cases Board members do go by the recommendations made by programme staff, ‘because we ensure “real” convincing homework is done before presentations to the relevant committee’.

A mid-term review offers the opportunity to consult a wide variety of stakeholders ‘on what the foundation has been doing and what could be done differently’ and to provide a source of fresh ideas, suggesting ‘new areas that may need attention’. KCDF has also recently introduced the idea of establishing an external advisory group on specific issues where the Foundation itself has little or no knowledge. This happened, for instance, in 2005, with the arts. ‘Establishing an informal group of knowledgeable people in the arts field,’ says Mawiyoo, ‘has helped to serve as a resource group to the Programme Committee.’ KCDF is about to set up a Youth Advisory Group as the background to implementing a country-wide youth programme.

Recruiting the right staff

Whatever the means used to keep up to date with where the real problems lie and to refresh the stream of ideas about how to address them – whether by means of an in-house, intelligence service led by an individual strong enough to fraternize with foundation presidents and CEOs, regular recourse to external opinion, or moving staff on from programme officer positions after a fixed period – it’s clearly important to recruit staff who will bring ideas and imagination. According to Barry Gaberman, Ford starts off from the ideal – someone who has a raft of skills including languages, experience in the country, writing skills and presentation skills – and then makes a pragmatic decision, recognizing that ‘in fact you don’t often get every one of those in one person. And then we make the best choice we can.’

In addition to recruitment, KCDF also highlights what Janet Mawiyoo calls ‘an on-going investment in staff for their own development. Providing opportunities for staff to refresh their ideas and interact with other people engaged in similar work is part of what ensures that good staff remain competitive in their fields.’

Finally, Anthony Tomei feels that specialization in an area is not the key requirement. ‘In foundations that fund strategically,’ he believes, ‘the role of staff is not to become subject experts, but rather to use their networks and contacts to become expert facilitators; “convenors”, to use Luc Tayart’s happy phrase. When we recruit new staff we value intellectual curiosity as well as knowledge and expertise. We are interested in people who are concerned about asking the right questions, as well as getting the right answers.’

1 William A Schambra, ‘How to Make a Big Foundation Effective’, Chronicle of Philanthropy, 14 September 2006.

Alliance would like to thank the following, on whose contributions this article is based:
Akwasi Aidoo Executive Director, TrustAfrica
Barry Gaberman Senior Vice President, Ford Foundation
Janet Mawiyoo Executive Director, Kenya Community Development Foundation
Luc Tayart de Borms Managing Director, King Baudouin Foundation
Anthony Tomei Executive Director, Nuffield Foundation

The Development Set

Ross Coggins, 1976

Excuse me, friends, I must catch my jet
I’m off to join the Development Set;
My bags are packed, and I’ve had all my shots,
I have Traveller’s cheques and pills for the trots.

The Development Set is bright and noble,
Our thoughts are deep and our vision is global.
Although we move with the better classes,
Our thoughts are always with the masses.

In Sheraton hotels in scattered nations,
We damn multinational corporations;
Injustice seems so easy to protest,
In such seething hotbeds of social rest.

We discuss malnutrition over steaks
And plan hunger talks during coffee breaks.
Whether Asian floods or African droughts
We face each issue with open mouth.

The language of the Development Set
Stretches the English alphabet;
We use swell words like ‘epigenetic’,
Micro’, ‘macro’ and ‘logarithmatic’.

Development Set homes are extremely chic,
Full of carvings and draped with batik.
Eye-level photographs subtly assure:
Your host is at home with the great and the poor.

Enough of these verses – on with the mission! 
Our task is as broad as the human condition! 
Just pray God the biblical promise is true,
The poor ye shall always have with you.*

* From Adult Education and Development, September 1976.


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