Wanted: Three-Handed Superstar Masochists to Run Big Foundations

There's been a lot of flux at the top of foundations lately. Three of the biggest—Ford, Gates, and Kellogg— recently hired new presidents; meanwhile, Hilton, Moore, Irvine, and MacArthur are looking to hire. 

Given all that, Fay Twersky's deeply researched study on foundation presidents could hardly be more timely. But here's the thing: headhunters and search committees are going to hate this study because it makes running a foundation look like a living hell.

Okay, I'm exaggerating. But Twersky paints a picture of an inherently challenging job based on 65 interviews with current and former CEOs, board members, and others. This research, I might add, was conducted before Steve McCormick abruptly resigned from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which I wrote about here, and Bob Gallucci was axed by MacArthur's board, which I wrote about here.

Anyone contemplating filling the shoes of those two men should read Twersky's study first. While top foundation jobs may seem appealing—you'll never again have a bad meal or hear a genuine compliment, goes the joke—that allure can be deceptive. 

If you're recruited to one of these jobs from outside of philanthropy, which Twersky says is very common, you'll have to learn about a whole new field on the fly. Simultaneously, though, you'll need to figure out the organization you're heading up—how to engage its board and navigate its internal culture. And you'll need to get up to speed on the foundation's substantive work. 

All this takes time, a lot of time, Twersky was told by foundation CEOs, past and present. Another tricky factor, which Twersky doesn't mention, is that it can be hard to know what needs fixing at an institution with no real bottom line. If you take over a for-profit business, you can look at things like sales, customer retention, and earnings. If you're stepping into a nonprofit, you can look at how well the fundraising is going. Solid metrics like that can suggest obvious imperatives to new leaders: wind down this product line, replace that development director, and so on. 

No such clear yardsticks are handy for new foundation CEOs, and crucial questions about a foundation's priorities and track record may be essentially unanswerable. Consider a place like  the Conrad H. Hilton foundation. Whoever takes over that outfit next might see its huge amount of traditional direct service grantmaking as a poor way to leverage its funds, only to run up against board members who point out that the foundation is keeping people off drugs, or off the street, or just plain alive. Whatever technophilanthrocrats may say, effective giving is often in the eye of the beholder

So who succeeds as a foundation president? Fay Twersky's study will likely be read for years to come because she breaks new ground in offering concrete answers to this question—even if her answers aren't all that surprising. 

As you'd expect, good foundation presidents tend to be "artful jugglers," as Twersky puts it:

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.

And success becomes even tougher if new leaders must master the field of philanthropy on top of everything else. Which is why a key conclusion of Twersky's study is that foundations should hire leaders who understand philanthropy and, even better, choose internal candidates. What a novel suggestion: tap people who actually know what they're doing rather than bring in clueless big shots from other fields.  

Yet if a foundation turns to insiders, it runs the danger of being too insular and removed from the real world. Oy, what's a search committee to do?

I would argue that the bar should be higher still: that what we need today are foundation presidents who are truly creative thinkers and innovators, with big visions. Just because you can get along with a board, manage a foundation, and drive forward solid programs that have impact, it doesn't mean that you can think beyond current paradigms and imagine entirely new ways to tackle problems. 

Of course, bringing in that sort of person won't do much good if foundations aren't ready to do things differently. Even the boldest and most creative foundation presidents will have limited power to make big changes if that's not what boards are looking for. Real transformation requires a unified board or living donor that's fully behind such change. That's why what's happening at the MacArthur Foundation is worth watching very closely—if, in fact, the goal there really is to pursue disruptive innovation as I've suggested. Hilton is another place to keep a close eye on, given that Steven Hilton has clearly said the family wants to shake things up, as we wrote here

There's a long history of foundation presidents who tried to make too many changes too quickly and got zinged. (See: Gara LeMarche.) As one CEO told Twersky: “Never get too far ahead of your board.” Or your living donor. 

Yes, strong presidents are important, but it's unclear how much of a decisive factor they are in whether a foundation maximizes its potential impact. Good leadership may be a precondition for effective philanthropy, but it doesn't guarantee it. And my guess is that we could find foundations where the president didn't much matter given the strong vision of a living donor or board.

So here's the question I hope Fay Twersky will tackle next: How much do foundation presidents matter? In the meantime, let's hope search committees pay attention to the considerable wisdom found in this study.