Seven lessons from ten years at Todd Foundation

It’s a good time of year for looking back and reflecting…

Earlier this year I stepped down from my Executive Director role at Todd Foundation to become an independent consultant. Here is an article I wrote recently about the lessons learned in my 10 years with Todd Foundation.  (This was originally published in the December 2015 edition of Philanthropy News, a magazine produced by Philanthropy New Zealand.)

My first day at Todd Foundation began with a meeting over a cup of tea and home-made cheese scones with the Foundation’s chairman, the late Sir John Todd. He told me very clearly that my role was to “get out in the community and find out how the Foundation could help”.

This advice filled me with delight – how cool a job is this, I thought! But there was also a little anxiety. I was white, middle-class and fresh out of the world of Internet start-ups – what did I know about communities – especially those most marginalised and disadvantaged? How could I authentically ask what might be most helpful, particularly if this then translates into judging and recommending who should and should not receive funding?   And did I even know what good philanthropy is?

This last question is deceptively simple. Even now, Google is remarkably unhelpful on what constitutes good philanthropy – especially when compared with the pages of relevant hits on what makes a good charity. I suspect that this lack of a shared view is mostly because philanthropic funders don’t have good feedback mechanisms. As funders we rarely receive either complaints or honest assessments of our performance, and, unlike businesses, even if we are doing a very bad job (by whatever measure), we rarely go broke.

So we forge our own definitions of good philanthropy, and we tread our own paths towards this.

I believe that that good philanthropy is simply about effectively supporting positive social and/or environmental change.

So what are the key lessons I learned at Todd Foundation on our journey to defining and implementing “good philanthropy”? Here are some:

  1. Be clear on the change we are looking for: If we want to support positive change, then it helps to understand what is most needed and how this aligns with what the people who created the Foundation care about. The processes we used for this at Todd Foundation included researching our social landscape, visiting communities and grantees and undertaking visioning workshops for trustees, family members, staff, grantees and sector experts.
  2. Listen, learn and have representation from the communities served:   At Todd Foundation, this started with a team commitment to take every opportunity to listen and learn and was reinforced through team KPIs for how much research we read and how many community events and seminars we attended. Over time, we began experimenting with panels of young people to help select youth funding and  our staff and board became more diverse.  In particular, I think it is very important in Aotearoa NZ to ensure appropriate Māori representation on staff and boards.
  3. Select organisations which are constantly learning and which actively create environments where people help themselves and each other: For me, a grantee who can show that they are constantly trying new things, figuring out what works well and what doesn’t, then improving what they do accordingly, is well equipped to make positive social change. Similarly, the phrase “nothing about us without us” is important – how, for example, can an organisation without young people on the staff and board know what is best for youth? Our approach to this included looking for organisations which reflect the communities they serve and support those communities to help themselves and each other.   We also preferred evaluations that were an honest look at how to improve initiatives, rather than simply attempting to prove that the initiative is working.
  4. Create fit-for-purpose processes and funding structures: A “net grant” is the value of funding provided less the value of the applicant’s time applying for and reporting on funding. It’s therefore very important that we “right-size” processes so that trustees have enough information to make good decisions without unnecessarily diverting community organisations from their real work. It’s also important that our funding provides enough resources, time and flexibility to do the tough work of social change well. The way we did this at Todd Foundation included:
    • tracking how long applications take to ensure the time involved is reasonable
    • using a two-step selection process where anyone can provide a short initial application and a much smaller number are invited to provide full proposals
    • providing untagged five-year funding to small groups of trusted organisations
    • using face-to-face, roundtable reporting processes.
  5. Hold a mirror to ourselves: If honest feedback is rare in the funding world, it is vital that we actively assess ourselves. We developed a framework for assessing our concept of good philanthropy, which included monitoring how well we:
    • understood the communities we serve
    • met the needs of all stakeholders
    • managed our people, investments and systems
    • understood the impact of our funding
    • served our communities beyond providing funding
  6. Look for ways to help out beyond money: As well as money, funders generally have a reasonable amount of power – arguably more than we deserve. How can we use this wisely for the good of our communities? Examples include using our convening power to bring organisations together to explore new ways of working, collaborating with other funders, freely sharing what we learn and, when appropriate, adding our voice to our grantees’ causes – all of which we undertook at Todd Foundation.
  7. Find the new horizons: one of the joys – and challenges – of philanthropy is that we are working in complexity. Social issues like violence and poverty have been with us for millennia and have no quick solutions. However there are so many new things to try, and in my opinion some seem particularly promising, eg:
    • Supporting “collective impact” approaches tailored for Aotearoa New Zealand. None of us can change the world alone – but together much is possible
    • Exploring social finance – ie investing some of our capital base to support positive social and environmental change.
    • Considering ways of more effectively engaging our communities in the design and distribution of funding through participatory philanthropy

I feel very privileged to work in philanthropy and to have contributed to the Todd Foundation’s journey. It is exciting to watch the Foundation’s journey continue and strengthen under talented new leadership – and similarly I am excited by my new role as an independent consultant for philanthropic and community organisations.

And, if we follow Sir John Todd’s advice and simply get out in our communities to find out how we can help, we are all on a path to good philanthropy.

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