Report Date
November 2014
Learning Log

Inside the Foundation: A Tell-All! I’m pretty sure anyone who has ever worked at a nonprofit has dreamed of working at a foundation. The idea of giving away the money instead of asking for it all the time sounds pretty ideal. And the opportunity to support community change and make things happen while also working in an environment that doesn’t feature office furniture that you found on the side of the road? Sign me up!

Part of my fellowship plan is to learn more about the world of philanthropy and the ways in which private philanthropy and the nonprofit sector can work together and make bigger, more rapid change. After many years in the nonprofit sector the fellowship is giving me the opportunity to learn firsthand about the process of grantmaking and philanthropy by helping to design the new Community Creativity Cohort for the Bush Foundation. This new, one-time program is designed “to both recognize and learn from exemplary organizations that meaningfully engage people in the arts and integrate the arts into public life” and to inform the Foundation’s future work in the arts.

I think it’s pretty exciting that the foundation wants this program to help them learn about the ways in which arts and culture are a part of their big picture vision. And it’s incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to shape this potentially catalytic program.

The first task was to build the guidelines and parameters to select the cohort. I learned a lot from the challenge of trying to balance what I believe the needs of the field are, my own perspective and values and the priorities and culture of the foundation. This helped me clarify what are the things that I care about vs. the things that are the right fit for the foundation—which was one of my primary goals for my fellowship time, to understand more about how to separate out my own passions from the organization I work for. And then, of course, the immense responsibility of writing guidelines that are legible, clear and not overly onerous to complete.

This part of the experience also helped me think a lot about leadership—I like to think of myself as a collaborative leader and believe I feel very comfortable running a “flat” organization. However, the experience of not actually being completely in charge of this project reminded me that it’s been a very long time since I’ve led from the middle and that structures at my own organization that may feel flat to me, still aren’t entirely. I also had a lot of anxiety about how taking on this role at the foundation would affect my relationships with peers and colleagues in the sector. The application and program was launched this fall and we had a great response.

In early 2015 we will select 10-15 organizations to participate in the cohort and they will come together for two 2-day meetings to help inform the work of the foundation. I really want these experiences to feel useful and practical to the foundation and to the group and I really want the cohort to be able to see themselves in the strategy that the foundation chooses to pursue afterwards. It’s a big challenge to design an experience for an unknown group of people to get at pretty unknown goals. But this part of the process actually feels more comfortable to me than the grant guidelines design. I think that may be because this feels more like program building, which is where I’m most comfortable. Gathering input, iterating ideas, bringing in outside perspectives--this is the work I love.

Throughout this process I’ve learned that there is a lot of power and ability to affect change in philanthropy. There is also more distance from the work on the ground and a lot of system and structure building required to make change. There is tremendous opportunity for nonprofits and foundations to work together in stronger, more transparent partnerships to accomplish shared goals and the Bush Foundation is a strong leader and model for how this can happen. In short, the grass isn’t as greener as you might think…but they do have the non-roadside furniture!

I know you were probably expecting salacious details from this tell-all…and I don’t want to disappoint you – so here you go: Jen Ford Reedy has a desk drawer filled with cheez balls with custom “bush foundation orange” cheez dust; Allison Barmann legally changed her middle name to Innovation; and Dameun Strange’s signature dapper look is actually a sweatsuit with a bow tie and vest painted on it.