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Foundations Move at the Speed of…Snails

I was sitting in a workshop last week with some of the world’s leading business consultants. We were advised that in this time of rapidly changing technology and “disruption” what organizational leaders value most is speed. The more we can help our clients rapidly improve, develop and implement strategies, and generate new innovations, the better.

“Except for philanthropy,” I thought.

In my experience many grantmakers move at a snail’s pace. Let me give you some examples:

  • Finding it perfectly acceptable to take nine months to make a grant. (Why not nine weeks, or even nine days? If you really need nine months to make a decision, something is very wrong with your process.)
  • “Collaborations” of funders that meet monthly for years without setting clear goals or taking any actions. (Either develop a plan or disband already. Or, admit that your gathering is simply for networking to properly manage everyone’s expectations.)
  • Allowing five internal departments a total of five weeks to approve a written Request for Proposals that has already been revised four times. (This should take close to five days. While feedback should be welcomed, someone eventually should have authority to make a go-or-no-go call on the way external documents are worded.)
  • Declaring that next year is a “learning year” without providing clear structure or guidance as to what is supposed to be learned and how. (I can recall an instance where one foundation adopted this “learning year” strategy. I spoke with three different program officers and I still don’t understand what they were trying to do. I don’t think they did either).
  • Being unable to make major decisions between quarterly board meetings, so a process that could take two months to complete is stretched out over a year. (Sometimes this is a function of sharing too much decision-making authority. Other times it’s the inability of one person or a small group to make a decision on their own.)

While I do believe that it is often helpful to “go slow to go fast” and “first, do no harm,” I think the lack of urgency on the part of grantmakers is often simply ridiculous. In all of these examples, you can practically hear the brakes groaning as productivity – and impact – grind to a halt.

Why does this happen? It could be because there are few regulatory and almost zero market forces pushing foundations to act faster. But there is an equal dearth of consequences if a foundation acts quickly and happens to make a mistake. So absent of any outside pressure, the responsibility for the snail’s pace rests solely on foundations themselves.

So, here’s a tip for speeding things up. Pretend for a moment that there is outside pressure. A new law has just been passed that mandates all foundations to award grants or contracts within 60 days of an RFP release. Then imagine a reporter who insists on access to all foundation board meetings (except for executive session) and reports on the foundation’s progress to the community every month.

Ask yourself and your staff: What could we do to streamline and speed up our grant process? How could we take our internal ideas from concept to market in half the time? How can we set performance targets that include speed and efficiency as well as outcomes? How can we turn our snail into a Thoroughbred?

Kris Putnam-Walkerly

Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and was recently named one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers.” Her clients include the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, Annie E. Casey Foundation, and Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, among dozens of others. Learn more at putnam-consulting.com. Find her on Twitter at @Philanthropy411

  • Beth Jarrard

    We have a saying in our office that the foundation “moves
    with glacial speed.” However, this isn’t meant to be a disparaging remark. It is in reference to the very deliberate and purposeful decisions made by the
    foundation trustees.

    With the list of clients mentioned, I would imagine that Ms.
    Putnam-Walkerly has had the opportunity to see firsthand the inner workings of some very solid, long-standing foundations and their procedures that have
    served communities well for decades. Is she recommending that they be revamped and have conveyer belts installed with grant checks flowing out the door without so much as getting to know the organizations first?

    Admittedly, Ms. Putnam-Walkerly makes a point on examples she provides citing vague project structure and multiple revisions on revisions. However, she claims that something is wrong with taking 9 months to award a grant.
    What about the foundations that only have one or two grant cycles per
    year? What would be, in her opinion, an acceptable amount of time in that case?

    I suggest Ms. Putnam-Walkerly be invited to speak at a GMN conference where we can hear first-hand her ideas on how she would streamline our
    grant awarding procedures. I would definitely sign up for that session.