Friday, July 20, 2007

In a hole in the ground there lived a foundation director...

Can I tell you my dream?

A foundation -- wealthy but not too famously so, progressive but not political, influential but not entrenched -- invites me to give away their money.

"At last, at last, to be giving it away!" I sing, "No more of this begging business!"

At which point, as I am taking off my mud-covered poncho and beggar's cap, I am smacked across the back of the head by Pam Gerber. "You're not a beggar. You do not BEG. You encourage investments. You help people."

"Aye, noble lady," I then say with a bow. Once she turns to go back to her angelic work of convincing companies to do well by doing good, I cast aside my dusty robes and dance to the top of the ivory tower that hired me.

"Where is the catapult?," I ask as I begin stuffing money into large, aerodynamic sacks. "I'd like to get started hurling money as soon as possible."

"Oh no, dear boy," says The Wizard behind the curtain. "We are not your grandfather's charity. We are outcomes driven. We are impact oriented. We are... changemakers, not checkwriters."

At this point, I begin looking about the room. I notice a shrivelled plant under a bell jar in the middle of the conference table. It looks somewhat like a mandrake.

"What is that?" I ask, approaching the jar slowly and with one hand raised to shield my face in the event of an unlikely explosion (you never know, with such things).

"Why - that?," booms the Wizard's voice. "That, young sir, is a root cause. We've killed it. It's the sort of thing that we foundations do."

At which points, the Wizard's voice cracks a bit under the strain of something between glee and hysterira, "Why, do not tell me that you have never heard of William 'Wild Bill' Schambra?!?"

At this point, Phil Cubeta drops down from the chandelier and lands atop the conference table (scattering stacks of unanswered grant solicitations). Whisking up the bell jar like so much cotton candy, he takes off his jester's hat, bows at the waist and begins to recite poetry. I would write it here, but this blog would burst assunder from its beauty.

Stars light in my eyes, and I walk away as one who has seen the promised land... down the stairs of the ivory tower, and out the back door... through the garden, into the comfortable hole in a hill where I will make my office. I call it "Beg End," in homage to the end of my begging days.

(And I hang a picture of dear Ms. Gerber above the mantlepiece, next to my old receipt letter-signing pen, to remind me of the nobility of my suitors' profession. A pot of tea shall be set to boil each and every time a fundraiser comes to call.)

Tucked comfortably therein, perhaps with a pipe in hand, I devise a plan to convince the board of the following bold strategy:

  • Focus 50% of the foundation's grants on unrestricted, large-scale, multi-year commitments to a handful of effective partner organizations; no more of this scattering dozens of $10K gifts across the country. Invest in the strongest, most effective organizations and get highly involved in their work. The gifts would be awarded on a quarterly basis, and would be scaled down as the grantees hit specific benchmarks, with the understanding that the grantees would need to sustain their work after the grant terms expire (and the grantees would likely not be eligible again for some time). During the grant terms, the foundation would meet quarterly with the grantees' leadership teams to get a report on progress, barriers, and opportunities. The foundation would use its influence to attract additional investments and partnerships to the grantees. The grantees' leadership would be considered core partners in the foundation's efforts to understand the needs in the community. The foundation would convene gatherings of grantees to foster collaborations among them, whenever appropriate. Recommendations for future grants would be solicited from previous/current grantees, to foster partnerships among complementary non-profit organizations.
  • Invest another 25% of the foundation's grants on efforts to remove duplication and waste by funding the mergers of non-profit organizations. There is no need for a dozen hunger relief organizations in the city. Consolidate them into two or three organizations that address different aspects of hunger, and support these larger organizations with the aforementioned style of grants.
  • Focus the remaining 25% of the foundation's grants on supporting start-up and pre-development costs associated with opening social enterprises, particularly for social service organizations that face growing needs and that have a difficult time building operating reserves (let alone endowments). These grants would be used to hire consultants, develop business plans and secure additional seed funding so that the development of the social enterprise does not become an overwhelming distraction for the organization's leadership (i.e. so the organization's core mission does not suffer).

Finishing my plan, I go outside for a stroll. In the alley, I see a former employer, destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging himself through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix. I chase after him, shouting out the joy of my new plan in hopes he does not think I am simply burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night...*



I've had this dream on and off over the years. I was reminded of it when reading Trent Stamp's Take: We'll Merge When I Quit. An hour before reading that, I happened to be drowning my sorrows at The Elbow Room while discussing this same dream with a friend.

To dream, to dream, to dare to dream... will we ever be the City upon a Hill?

* Lest there be any confusion, these italicized lines are from Allen Ginsberg's "Howl"