Rare But Valuable: The Foundation Chief as Thought Leader

Let’s start with the obvious: The top ranks of the foundation world are not exactly populated with intellectual heavyweights. I can only think of a few foundation heads who have held posts in academia or think tanks, or who’ve authored books and policy studies.

There are good reasons for that. Intellectual leadership is not the first credential that comes to mind for foundation presidents. What you want, above all, are people who’ll be good at giving away money to achieve impact. And often, such folks are practitioners who’ve played hands-on roles in making change. As well, getting things done at larger foundations can require real management chops, as Fay Twersky has shown in her research on foundation CEOs. These jobs are harder—and more political—than they look, and perhaps not thought of as a good fit for academics or policy uber-wonks.

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Yet there are obvious risks in populating the top tiers of the philanthrosphere mainly with practitioners and managers. Foundation chiefs are ideally strong thinkers when it comes to understanding the trends shaping society and how philanthropy can intervene to create a better future. You want them to feel at home in big picture conversations about the roles of different sectors in solving problems. You want them to be fluent enough in economic, political, and sociological concepts that they can debate theories of change and guide grantmaking at a meta level.

And, right at this moment, you want foundation leaders who aren’t afraid of change or new ideas—people who are flexible thinkers in an era when all sectors are being disrupted by new technologies, organizational models, and different generational mindsets.

What’s more, you don’t just want leaders who can keep their heads above deep intellectual water. You want leaders able to chart the right course.

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The perfect candidate for this role sure doesn’t sound like an organizational creature to me. And so it’s always reassuring when foundation leaders do come along who are intent on grappling with the big questions—and have the intellectual skills to engage at that level.

A case in point: Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, who today posted an unusual essay on “inequality, capitalism, and philanthropy,” in which he takes on one of the most pressing questions surrounding the sector today—namely whether philanthropy, which is a product of capitalism, can really do much to temper the harsh edges of the market, particularly the yawning chasm between the haves and everyone else.

I’ll say more about Walker’s answers to that question in another post, but here, let me just emphasize that it’s not every day that you find a foundation president citing Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments or looking to dust off and update Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth. This isn’t Walker’s first foray into such terrain, either. Recently, he published an extended and thoughtful essay on civil society organizations and the foundations that support them.

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Meanwhile, though, a great many foundation presidents never get beyond the occasional ghost-written op-ed piece or the dry speech at an industry function. To be sure, there are exceptionslike Stephen Heintz, who once led a think tank and has long been recognized as a deep thinker as head of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Or Vartan Gregorian, a former academic who runs the Carnegie Corporation. Or the past and present chiefs of the Hewlett Foundation, Paul Brest and Larry Kramer, both of whom brought the intellectual acuity of legal scholars to their jobs. Or Christopher Stone, the head of the Open Society Foundations, who’s logged years in think tanks and academia.

But these people are the exceptions. In truth, there aren’t a lot of thought leaders in philanthropy who also sit atop the institutions holding power and influence in this sector.

Contrast that with government, where you’ll find a revolving door between the public sector and think tanks and academia. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter is a physicist and a former Harvard University professor of Science and International Affairs. National Security Advisor Susan Rice is a former Rhodes Scholar and Brookings Fellow. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, is a renowned author and expert on genocide. Looking back, there’s a long, rich history of intellectual leaders playing direct, top roles in shaping government policy.

Philanthropy doesn’t have that same tradition, but why should that be? Succeeding in government demands far greater management and political skills than running foundations, yet plenty of intellectual types are able to thrive in these positions. Which is a good thing, too, because we want policy leaders who can understand the deeper trends they confront in their jobs.

Darren Walker is no academic, following the mode of a foundation leader who initially made his mark as a practitioner, leading the Abyssinian Development Corporation, a community development organization located in Harlem. But clearly, he’s keen to engage the big ideas that any leader of the Ford Foundation should be able to engage. And herein lies an important point: A foundation chief doesn’t need a Ph.D. to mix it up in the world of ideas. Rather, they need to have the interest and set aside the time, recognizing how important such engagement is.

Thought leadership comes in many formsfrom the veteran scholar adept at developing new intellectual frameworks, but also from practitioners who make a point of connecting up their hands-on experiences to ideas and trends. Good and frequent writing is key in either case. 

With philanthropy playing a bigger role in shaping our future, and with the challenges getting more complicated, there are real reasons to raise the intellectual bar for those in the driver’s seat of foundations.