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Foundations' Four Biggest Faux Pas

An open letter from Nancy Lublin to her powerful "friends" at foundations.

Illustration by Frank Chimero
Illustration by Frank Chimero

DEAR FOUNDATION PEOPLE:

We've been "friends" for a long time. We call. You return our call a few weeks later. We hang on to your every word. You seem to like us too, because you send us checks, though they're always smaller than we'd hoped. We send thank-you notes, or give you a piece of Lucite at our next dinner.

But the truth is, we don't really talk. We in the not-for-profit world depend on you, your foundations, and your beautifully typed checks with a tycoon's name on them; by one recent count, you have $628 billion that you could dole out to us. Still, let's be honest: Our relationship is fraught. Most of us don't tell you how we truly feel about you. We don't say when we think you've made a bad decision, because in the hoity-toity world of big money (yours) and little not-for-profits (us), that would be impolite — and, on my part, stupid. We fear losing your money.

If we're really in this do-gooder business to do good, though — and if we're ever truly going to be partners — then we're going to need a little more honesty. So here are some things we wish you'd stop doing — along with one pledge I'll make — which would vastly improve our relationship.

1. Stop thinking you know everything. Don't assume that your PhD diploma — which I see on the wall every time I visit — means that you understand the challenges of executing and implementing some of the good plans you fund. You've got lots of ideas, and you may write smart white papers about combating youth depression and suicide. But you probably still don't know as much about it as the folks at To Write Love on Her Arms or the Trevor Project, who work with suffering people every day.

2. Stop mistaking marketing for overhead — and stop hating on overhead. We're all running businesses, and we've all got more expenses than we want. But your constant refrain about us spending too much on communications staff, graphic design, and public relations is misguided. "Scaling up" means that people need to know about us. It also means that we'll have to spend money on expenses that you label with the most unfairly pejorative word in our business: overhead.

3. Stop funding redundancy. There is a ridiculous amount of repetition in our sector — much of it encouraged by the way we ask for funding, but also spurred by the way you fund. Does it make sense to bankroll three different organizations claiming to be the umbrella coalition for New York not-for-profits — or could we just get behind one? Be less like Santa Claus, who visits the home of every good boy and girl, and more like Warren Buffett, who picks targets that make long-term sense and pulls in smart investors with him.

4. Stop thinking that newer is better. We all love shiny new toys. Over and over, you tell us, "Bring us something new." We just wish you'd get behind programs with proven track records so that we could focus on making them better, rather than coming up with a new gimmick to catch your eye. We know that much of what we do isn't sexy, but it is important; think about funding the not-for-profit Ugly Bettys too.

On my end, I promise to stop calling "for advice" or "just to check in" when that's never the point of the conversation. We both know what I really want: your check.

Fondly,
Nancy

A version of this article appeared in the February 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.

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