I love private foundations.

That’s not a statement that folks usually say on a daily basis, and if they do, they are small in number.  But I really do.  While most of our writing is on social entrepreneurship, I wanted to give a little inside look into the world of private foundations – in three little bites.

How leadership trumps anonymity

The world of private giving and philanthropic foundations tends to be one cloaked in mystery and not widely understood.   For example, over dinner last night I started by explaining my job as working at a “new private foundation,” which then was distilled to “working in philanthropy,” and devolved further to “giving away money”.  “Giving away money” doesn’t do it justice, and worse it doesn’t invite people to participate.  People without money don’t seen an entryway to join and folks with money may put up their ‘don’t ask for my money’ defenses.  I need to find words that create inclusion.

Private giving in philanthropy is powerful especially when seen collectively.   The resources mobilized are large, and the agility and innovation makes it distinct from government and most business. Private giving has a ton of cultural nuances, and giving is different in Canada than in the United States for reasons stemming from governmental to societal traditions.  The private foundation is just one tool of private giving, and they are becoming more widely used by individuals who want to distribute their accumulated assets either while living or as legacy.

What’s challenging about many private foundations in Canada is that they exist – but no one knows about them.  As I’ve been hearing, the most comment reason for the enigmatic private foundation is that donors do not want to be splashy, so they opt for anonymity.  What is lost with anonymity, however, is the opportunity for leadership.  It is very difficult to learn and share lessons of philanthropy whilst remaining an enigma.  Leadership is different than ego.

When joining the Trico Charitable Foundation, the duality between leadership and anonymity was of particular importance to me.  The social entrepreneurship space in Calgary had been lacking in leadership.  Many were talking, but the multiplicity of resources – human and financial – were not being organized in an effective way.  The opportunity for a private foundation to join into this space with the needed resources means that now we can all focus on what needs doing and then move on to getting it done.  Leadership brings together the community, and the work is done in partnership.

Foundations play a huge role in being a connector – they advocate on behalf of the organizations they support, work with businesses to envision opportunities for social impact, and serve as a partner to governments. The benefits of private foundation and private giving, in general, are that risk is allowable and encouraged, and innovative solutions can be piloted and learned from before taken to scale.  In this way, new solutions for societal challenges have an advocate and an incubation space.

Smarter people than I have written on the traditions of philanthropic foundations, and I invite you to take a look at Joel Fleishman’s The Foundation (it’s not just for Americans, I promise) for additional stories describing the opportunities and challenges present with this method of philanthropy.

Foundations = Infrastructure

The beauty of the Trico Charitable Foundation’s February 14th launch was that everyone in the room (and beyond) knew that something new was starting.  Signs were on the wall, posters had been printed made, social media was set up, and partnerships were announced.  Much work had taken place to make all of this a reality.  It was my second week on the job, and I couldn’t wait to get going with the newly-announced programs.

Yet, as anyone in a start-up will tell you, there are a few details (not nearly as exciting as a launch and possibly much more important) to work out after the fanfare has died down.  It’s the techie side in me that found excitement in setting up the infrastructure that would make the Foundation’s initiatives a reality. More specifically, I was thrilled to set up a Salesforce database that would link to a Vertical Response mailing system, which would then allow us to directly pull data from our EventBrite registration system.  We found ways to update our website, set up a blog, and connect all of our social media accounts.  Currently, we are in the process of printing and producing thank you cards, workbooks, and swag for workshop attendees.  Up next, how exactly will folks apply for our grants?

And on and on.

All organizations know that operations, while not out front, are what will keep you moving things along behind the scenes.  The February launch really gave us two opportunities – to bring new programs and initiatives to Calgary in social entrepreneurship and to create our own way of operating.   There will be innovation in our operations, some risk and likely some failure.  It’s a work in progress, but we’ve got that entrepreneurial spirit to find the best practices and tools to help us accomplish our mission.

Because we’re not perfect

The work that most foundations do is heavy.  Poverty alleviation, early learning, global health, development, agriculture, immigration, and on.  The stakes for success and for learning from failure are high.  After all, you are directly impacting the lives of people, and it is crucial to retain humility in this space.

And we don’t have all the answers.  A few years ago, I opened a box delivered to a foundation where I was working.  Inside was this logo:

Mr. Happy Crack.  The emblem of The Crack Team – the Foundation Repair Specialists.

Of course, the word foundation most aptly applies to something that a home or building sits upon.  For those working in foundations, private or otherwise, to have our own repair service would be somewhat amazing – who wouldn’t want to watch Mr. Happy Crack bound through your door and fix your grant making, your evaluation, or your strategic planning.  Until that wishful day comes to fruition, we must content ourselves with finding alternative ways to make improvements by sealing our cracks and imperfections in the pursuit of doing the best work possible.

(Originally posted on Trico Charitable Foundation, April 2011)

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