The Insider's Guide to Grantmaking: How Foundations Find, Fund, and Manage Effective Programs
by Joel J. Orosz
Jossey-Bass Press, 2000
320 pp., $35
What does a foundation program officer do to earn her keep? That question was posed with particular urgency during the recent congressional debate over whether to adjust the mandatory pay-out requirement for foundations. Some legislators maintained that the costs of foundation staff should no longer be counted toward the required payout of at least 5 percent of assets that foundations must distribute to charity every year.
The philanthropic establishment was appalled at the suggestion that staff costs were anything less than indispensable to the third sector. “Foundations trade in two currencies: money and knowledge,” said Council on Foundations president Dorothy Ridings in a May 8, 2003 USA Today op-ed, as she argued that charitable undertakings would be far less effective without the careful, informed ministrations of fully deductible program officers.
The Insider’s Guide to Grantmaking: How Foundations Find, Fund, and Manage Effective Programs is a logical place to seek evidence that the profession of grantmaking is an indisputably value-added enterprise that requires the guiding hand of program officers. Written by Joel Orosz, until recently a distinguished practitioner of that profession at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and now a project director at Grand Valley State University’s Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership, the book’s jacket bills it as “the first and only practical guide to making foundation grants.” It is, indeed, an invaluable and often entertaining compendium of pointers, insights, and bits of wisdom gleaned from years of Orosz’s own experience, and from other sage veterans. Anyone interested in a traditional career in philanthropy will benefit from Orosz’s careful, exhaustive treatment of the stages of grantmaking, from selecting a program focus, through reviewing, accepting or declining, supervising, renewing, and evaluating grants. Of particular value is his account of the vices and virtues to which program officers are prone. Given the relatively unregulated character of the field, the personal moral character of the program officer is more than ordinarily important as a spur to job performance.
At the same time, however, Orosz’s book inadvertently reveals a great deal about what ails philanthropy today. For all the variety in size and mission that foundations exhibit, Orosz insists, “the great majority” follow four rules:
1. They “concentrate on philanthropy (root causes) as opposed to charity (meeting immediate needs)”
2. They support “innovation as opposed to ongoing programs”
3. They concentrate on “leveraging funds as opposed to being the sole funder”
4. They help “good ideas get a trial” as opposed to funding “tested and proven approaches.”
In other words, the major foundations view themselves as the research and development wing of American society, making grants for specific, limited projects and experimenting with various approaches to solving social problems.
Program officers at such foundations search for proposals describing ideas that “will solve problems in new ways,” reflect the latest expertise, are comprehensive and collaborative, can be readily evaluated, and hold some promise for having “broader than local impact, whether by bringing projects to scale or by working to effect changes in the policy arena.” Officers should not hesitate to make extensive suggestions about how projects should be structured, Orosz maintains; he includes a hypothetical letter from a program officer to a potential grantee offering detailed, heavy-handed hints about every aspect of the project’s design, funding, management, and evaluation. Once projects are funded, Orosz notes in a chapter tellingly entitled, “Managing the Project,” the program officer is expected to hover over them as if they were her children, providing extensive counsel and technical assistance. Problematic projects should not be given so much attention that the “good kids” are ignored, he suggests, because even “promising projects” are likely to “lie fallow” and not return “great outcomes” without the program officer’s close involvement.
As I read Orosz’s description of what foundations and program officers are expected to do, I cannot help but reflect upon one of the grantees I came to admire deeply in my time as a program officer for the Bradley Foundation in Milwaukee. As described previously in this magazine, Cordelia Taylor and her children turned their inner-city residence into Family House, a nursing facility for low-income elderly. For many of her residents, this final home—which now includes most of the houses on her block, flower and vegetable plots, a fountain in the enclosed back yard, and a medical clinic—will be the most comfortable and welcoming place they will ever have experienced in their otherwise hard-scrabble lives.
Yet Family House is precisely the sort of project that Orosz’s idealized program officer must not fund. After all, Mrs. Taylor is tending to the immediate needs of the impoverished elderly, not exploring the root causes of their plight. As she would be the first to note, hers is not a particularly “innovative” approach, but rather is based on ancient principles of family ties and Christian charity. Bradley would not have minded “leveraging” other major funders for Family House, but given the group’s home-grown, grassroots, faith-based character, we were pretty much on our own initially and proud of our unique interest in this sort of program. And Mrs. Taylor no longer needed help with start-up costs—that she had managed to scrounge from in-kind assistance and small contributions from local churches and her own personal savings—so we had to settle for a “tested and proven” program. The suggestion that I as her program officer could have done anything other than harass and distract her with armchair advice is amusing. The notion that I should have considered her one of my “children,” requiring constant attention lest she “lie fallow” and fail to return great outcomes, is patronizing and presumptuous.
But establishment philanthropy remains proudly committed to a grand, abstract, quasi-scientific search for the ultimate causes of all social problems, and so has steeled itself against the temptation to do a bit of concrete good for this small group of people in this particular community. Groups like Mrs. Taylor’s aren’t the only grantees worth supporting, but they do seem to be unreasonably scanted by many large grantmakers, who may have little to show for their big-thinking approach.
Indeed, if establishment philanthropy were consistently locating large-scale, effective solutions to social problems through its expensive, elaborate experimentation, no one would begrudge it large and well-funded staffs. But the few examples it can cite—the “green revolution,” for instance—are “becoming hoary with age,” as foundation scholar Leslie Lenkowsky noted in a review of Orosz’s book, and these victories happened many billions of dollars ago. Reading between the lines of Orosz’s skimpy references to actual programs, contemporary philanthropy, for all its inflated rhetoric, seems to have settled for fine-tuning delivery mechanisms for large-scale social services, as it tinkers at the margins of society’s major problems.
Small wonder that Orosz spends so much time advising program officers to become neither proud and arrogant, on the one hand, nor dispirited and cynical, on the other. By resolutely setting its face against doing immediate good for actual individuals, establishment philanthropy inevitably courts a reputation for detachment and hard-heartedness. Program officers who must force themselves every day to say “no” to the Mrs. Taylors of the world because they have social experiments to conduct—experiments that in moments of honesty they confess almost never bear the promised fruit—inevitably lose heart and passion for their jobs. Meanwhile, the American public will continue to wonder what program officers do to earn their keep. And conscientious program officers will wonder, too.
William A. Schambra is director of the Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Krista Shaffer, Center research assistant, contributed to the review.