As foundations embrace ever more ambitious and complex approaches for creating social change, they are taking an intentional approach to rethinking their organizational structures to achieve the greatest impact. They recognize that you can’t make change “out there” if you don’t make change “in here.” Foundations are experimenting with new practices and sharing what they are learning in order to create dialogue about emerging ideas and effective practice.
Six funders recently supported FSG to explore how foundations are being the change they seek in the world. FSG distilled key themes from conversations with 114 leaders and staff from 50 funders and 8 philanthropic services organizations in our new report, Being the Change. Our interviewees represent a cross-section of the foundation field, including executives, program officers, advisors, as well as 48 people representing functional areas such as evaluation, people, communications, and operations.
We found a surprising commonality regardless of the size or scope of the foundation. Four areas in particular—staffing philosophy, structure and design, skill development, and supportive culture— arose as areas that require adaptation to enable foundations and their staff members to adopt new ways of creating social change. By experimenting with new practices, foundations are fostering connectivity, vibrancy, and deep engagement both internally (across all people and parts of their organization) and externally (with grantees, community members, and other partners), ultimately opening up new avenues for impact.
When we shared the findings with staff at the study’s six funding organizations, they reflected on what they learned from the study, and the impact they hope it will have on their organizations and the field.
Here’s what they said:
“As a young foundation, we are still building the internal processes, teams, and culture that allow us to play multiple roles in ways that support our grantees, prioritize adaptive learning, and align with our sense of humility. We supported this research to learn more about how foundations with similar approaches are structuring their organizations to create large-scale impact. We hope that the study will help foundations carefully consider their approach to change-making, not just grantmaking, and explore appropriate staffing, structural, and cultural elements that allow them to be change-makers.”
Joe Goldman, President, Democracy Fund
“This study provides a thoughtful framework for rethinking organizational structure and staffing required to achieve significant impact. The study calls out key considerations – breaking silos to foster collaboration, engaging diverse perspectives, connecting every role to direct impact – when considering staffing models. We hope this study fosters ongoing dialogue and learning that will ultimately spur further innovation in how foundations structure themselves to take on complex challenges.”
Kathleen Boyle Dalen, Chief Talent, Integration, and Culture Officer, and Kristin Bechard, Chief Financial Officer, Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation
“This research highlights the fact that there are various models and approaches out there and there are no right or wrong answers, only those that work for each unique organization. This report helped us confirm the need to continue to be mindful and open to evolving structures and models and to be courageous with experimenting and refining as we go. We hope the study creates an opportunity for collaboration among foundations that are undergoing dynamic change at different levels.”
Robyn Arville, Chief of People, Humanity United
“We want to continue to learn; to test our assumptions about the best ways to organize and staff to achieve impact. This study has been an invaluable tool to do just that. For MacArthur, it is clear that impact requires that we use all of our assets, including our people. This is consistent with the desire of our staff, indeed professionals everywhere, to use their passion and talents to make a real difference. The study also reminds us that being a changemaker requires an extra dose of humility, in a world where grantees still carry the biggest burden of advancing change. We hope that what we have learned is helpful to organizations undertaking change, but we are equally excited to learn from others who have responded to staffing challenges with distinctive solutions of their own.”
Julia Stasch, President, MacArthur Foundation
“As we pursue a journey toward grappling effectively with complex systems, we can learn the most by seeing what is happening with peer organizations attempting a similar journey. Each of the organizations studied in the report is on a different path to systems change, but the fact that there are some common principles that underlie our work means that there is a discipline here — one that we are still developing, but one that shares a core set of good practices.”
Rob Ricigliano, Systems and Complexity Coach, The Omidyar Group
“We are starting a strategic workforce planning initiative and the focus of the study aligns with this. We thought it would be very beneficial to participate so we can gain greater insight into what others are doing as it relates to rethinking staffing.”
Tamara Lewis, Vice President, Talent and Culture, and Taryn Lee, Human Resources Director, Hilton Foundation
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