Falling into Philanthropy; Wandering into Learning

Submitted by Jessica Bearman on February 18, 2011
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Ask someone how they came to work in a foundation and more often than not you’ll get a laugh and hear something about “falling into philanthropy.”  It’s as though the world of grantmaking were a large, unexpected hole in the ground that, fortunately, just happens to open into a really comfy cave with excellent lunches.  You can picture them rubbing their heads and elbows, looking around in wonder, and asking:  Huh.  How’d I get here?

It’s well established that there’s no established pathway into grantmaking, in the way that doctors have medical school or teachers a credentialing system.  And once you get into a grantmaking job, while your own employer may have a set of expectations for what you know and are able to do (and may even have an efficient way of conveying them to you), the “field” doesn’t seem to.  Or if it does, it’s got a funny way of making you search high and low for them.   As Jan Jaffe has observed, some grantmakers don’t even see learning as a part of the job.

In more than 30 interviews with grantmakers about their learning pathways, I asked: “When you first started in philanthropy, what did you need to learn?”  The most common answer:   “When I first started my job, I didn’t even know what questions to ask.”

Not surprising, but striking.

I heard this line – almost word for word –  from executive directors of family foundations and program officers at medium-sized and large ones.  From people who came into philanthropy as seasoned veterans from other fields.  They described casting about for answers, and sometimes realizing years later that they’d somehow skipped over critical knowledge.  “I spent a lot of time Googling to learn the nuts and bolts of grantmaking,” said one family foundation executive director.  A program officer at a large foundation described “…asking everyone I could think of:  where do you get your resources?  How do you do your job?”  Said another interviewee, “I was uncomfortable in my job for about three years.  And I made unbelievable mistakes during those three years.”

The human resources, organization development, or evaluation folks in foundations who are charged with thinking about staff and organizational learning acknowledged the issue.  “No one wants to admit that they don’t know how to make grants.  That’s supposed to be the easy stuff, “said one.  Another described the ”blank stare and panicked look,” he’d encountered from recently hired program officers in response to a question about whether they felt prepared for their grantmaking work.

They acknowledged that their organizations didn’t yet have consistent competency models (descriptions of what you need to know and be able to do) for staff, though in several cases they are under development.

The people I spoke with went on to describe how, over a period of years, they ultimately patched together what they needed to feel competent and confident in their work.  Some found context and background in programs that specifically give an introduction to the nuts and bolts of grantmaking, or further refining of it, like Essential Skills and Strategies, Grantmaking Basics, and the Grantmaking School at Grand Valley State University. Some pointed to philanthropy support organizations or resources, including GrantCraft, the Association of Small Foundations, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the Council on Foundations, and various regional associations of grantmakers and affinity groups.

Yet most also talked about the continued challenge of navigating the territory  without a map.  This  was the second piece of consistent feedback: there’s is no good system to help sort through the array of learning resources.

“It would be nice to find exactly what you’re looking for without going through five thousand websites,” lamented one program officer.   “I kind of suspect I’m just stumbling across the good stuff I find,” said another.  “That makes me really aware of how many other good things I’m probably missing.”

So, what do you think? The great majority of grantmakers do learn how to do their jobs pretty well, right?  And so the status quo, it could be argued, works well enough.

  • Is it acceptable that so many grantmakers begin their work without a roadmap?  Is it just the nature of the beast in such an individualistic sector?
  • Who should provide that map – their organization or the “field” of philanthropy?
  • Is the problem that the great resources exist and aren’t easily found?  Or that they don’t exist?
  • What are examples of good roadmaps for learning that you’ve used?

About the Learning About Learning Files: As part of developing the LearnPhilanthropy pilot, we have interviewed more than 30 program officers, learning officers, and CEOs about their approach to learning.  We’ll continue to collect perspectives and report on what we’re learning about learning from this diverse group.