How an Outsider from Bridgespan Ended Up As Irvine's Top Dog. And What He'll Do

What is it about those Bridgespan people? One moment they're working for you, the next moment you're working for them. 

Okay, that's not the way it always goes. But it is striking how consultants can move from outside advisors to inside operators. We noted this when reporting on the Hewlett Foundation's big new democracy initiative, which is being run by a former partner in Bridgespan's San Fransisco office, Daniel Stid. 

Now comes the news that another former partner at that same office, Don Howard, has just been tapped as the Irvine Foundation's new president. 

Howard, who came to Irvine from Bridgespan in 2012, has been serving as the interim president foundation while the board searched for a new permanent leader. But following a “broad and extensive search that saw an extraordinary number of strong and diverse candidates,” the foundation unanimously decided to stick with the guy who’d been keeping the top seat warm. Howard fills the shoes of James Canales, who moved across the country to make history as the first president of the Barr Foundation.

So how'd Howard do so well so quickly at Irvine? Well, surely personal chemistry with the board played a huge role, as it often does in these cases. But we can also see why being a consultant for many years would be surprisingly good training for running a big foundation. 

As Fay Twersky recently stressed in her study of foundation presidents, these are daunting jobs that require "artful jugglers." She writes:

They are able to tend to their board of directors, to manage their organization internally, and to drive their foundation to make an impact externally. By their own reckoning, few CEOs are equally successful in all three domains.

High-level consultants to foundations and nonprofits know all these spheres quite well, and how easily things can go wrong in each. These folks often come in when board-staff ties have become difficult, when an organization's culture has become dysfunctional, or when an institution is drifting without a clear strategy. They're also the people you call when you want to go from "good" to "great," and some are truly gifted at big-picture thinking and conjuring new ways to move the needle. (Others may simply "steal your watch to tell you the time," as one critic put it.) 

Before he came to Irvine, Howard worked with the foundation for a decade in various capacities, most notably managing its strategic planning process in 2002 and 2003 that led to its current priorities. He also worked with other foundations in the Bay Area's super-active philanthrosphere, helping them with strategy and management. 

As it turns out, though, Don Howard isn't just good at telling people what to do. He's also good at doing stuff himself. 

While on the Irvine payroll, Howard has enjoyed great success with his California Pay for Success Initiative. In fact, it was under his leadership that Irvine committed $2.5 million to connect donors, foundations, and investors to save money for government agencies. In turn, government entities repay investors with a return on their investments for projects that go as planned.

What does Howard's ascension mean for Irvine's grantees, and the broader world of California's nonprofit sector? Normally, a foundation's grantees might quiver in fear when a consultant type takes the reins, given how these people love to turn institutions upside down with their fancy ideas. But this situation may be different. Since Howard helped establish Irvine’s current grantmaking priorities of arts, youth, and California democracy, you'd think he'd be less inclined to make immediate changes to grantmaking when he takes the president's office on October 1. But actually, who knows?

Given who this guy is, with a Stanford MBA and a keen interest in high-impact investments, we expect to see more pilot projects being funded, more risks being taken, and a higher priority placed on metrics.

Irvine could become an even better friend than it is to social entrepreneurs in California with innovative nonprofit startups, as well as to established organizations looking to take a chance with something entirely new. On the other hand, more traditional nonprofits who've long received Irvine money without jumping through many hoops may fare less well.

Howard isn’t scared of change and believes in the power of investing in new, promising ideas. And that will cut both ways for California's nonprofits. 

“I know the board and staff are hungry to move to the next level of impact, to take more smart risks, and to continue innovating in ways that will deepen and expand our effectiveness,” Howard said in a press release.

That sounds exciting. And, for some grantees, maybe foreboding.