A Foundation’s Freedom – And its Responsibility

Philanthropy411, in partnership with the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Kristin Ivie, Program Manager of Social Innovation at the Case Foundation.

By:  Kristin Ivie

One recurring theme I kept hearing in different contexts and from different types of people at CoF is the freedom that comes with being in philanthropy. In the closing plenary, Geoffrey Canada from Harlem Children’s Zone remarked that his experience in championing education reform taught him that foundations belong to a very small group of people who have the luxury of being able to go out on a limb to support an innovative – or even controversial – position on an issue without the fear of losing customers, voters or other supporters. In many of the conversations around using social media and technology to open up your foundation’s communication and engagement with broader networks, people often remarked that we as foundations, if anyone, should feel free to express our opinions, be open to feedback and try new things. There was a similar sentiment in the discussion around experimentation with prize and challenge competitions like the X Prize, Pepsi Refresh and Ashoka’s Changemakers.

Now obviously no one wants a lot of bad PR, but the reality is that foundations do have greater freedom than most individuals and organizations to experiment and to adopt innovative, and sometimes controversial, initiatives and opinions. And yes, with experimentation comes the possibility of failure. One CoF participant suggested that if we aren’t making some grants and investments that end up failing, we aren’t really being innovative at all. And as long as we are failing informatively by capturing and sharing lessons that will help our foundation or someone else’s do it better the next time, the experiment is still worth something. It’s nice to recognize that we have this freedom.

But as my mother started telling me around the time I got my driver’s license (and as Eleanor Roosevelt said before her) “with freedom comes responsibility.” Perhaps our freedom as foundations gives us a responsibility to take these risks, for the benefit of those who can’t. I enjoy working at the Case Foundation because we relish in trying new approaches and models that haven’t been widely adopted, and we’re happy to break a few eggs in the process if it means that others can learn from our victories and our mistakes. I hope that both we and our foundation colleagues of CoF continue to see exercising our freedom to experiment, take a stand and take risks as not just a luxury, but a responsibility.

One response to “A Foundation’s Freedom – And its Responsibility

  1. Bravo! Speaking for the team here at Monitor Institute, I couldn’t agree more.