Foundations are Burning Out Charity CEO's


Like well-meaning rich aunts, foundations are full of advice for nonprofit organizations and their leaders. From positions of relative financial security and isolated from the risks and challenges confronting most nonprofit executive directors, foundation leaders and program officers issue a constant stream of admonitions: Focus on finding dependable sources of income. Produce measurable results. Evaluate whether you are making a difference. Be strategic, not opportunistic. Build diverse boards. Spend more time on advocacy. Collaborate with other organizations.

Because of the power differential between grant makers and grant recipients, nonprofit executives are usually forced to nod in agreement, to accept advice from foundations as wise, and to act on it. Too often, communication is one-way: from the grant maker to the nonprofit executive. Candid, two-way conversations are rare. As a result, foundations risk losing the ability to listen — and to use their resources and influence to deal with the stark everyday realities facing nonprofit organizations and their leaders.

A new study of 2,000 nonprofit executive directors, conducted by my organization, the Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation, and CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, offers grant makers a glimpse of those realities and a powerful opportunity for listening. Executive directors in eight cities, primarily from small and mid-size nonprofit organizations, answered questions about their career paths, predicted tenure, management teams, and major challenges and frustrations.


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