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Heroes & Villains

Legal Counsel for Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector

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Heroes & Villains


This article, by Ken Hoffman, originally appeared in Third Sector on November 10, 2004.

For a quarter century, both at my own organisation and as a consultant, I have relied on funding decisions by US foundations. Like anyone dependent on handouts, I have to restrain myself from the simple judgment: when they give me the money, I like them; when they don't, I don't.

Some 'philanthropoids' have been exceptional. In my staff days, the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation was an exemplary matriarchy: inclusive and efficient.

I was amazed when Edith Muma, the foundation's chairwoman, turned to her young assistant at our meeting and asked what she thought of my proposal.

And when the Noyes staff said a cheque would appear on a given day, you did not need to consult the calendar!

At the Scherman Foundation, the genial executive director, David Freeman, would lean back in his chair and say: "Tell me what you are doing these days." When we had, he would conclude with: "Send me a summary, but don't ask for a specific amount - we will do what we can." The result was usually a multi-year, general support grant ... the dream scenario.

On the 56th floor of Rockefeller Plaza, the behaviour might best be described as diffident. After a meeting, I offered to send a three-page proposal.

The Rockefeller family's man said quietly: "Just three paragraphs, not three pages." My hero.

But not everyone reaches these levels. An executive at the Henry P. Kendall Foundation was long overdue to send a cheque representing an agonisingly large percentage of my charity's budget. When I finally screwed up the courage to phone and ask for the money, he said blandly: "Oh, the cheque's on my desk. Did you need it?"

Long before the grant-making stage, many foundations strive to insulate their board members from contact with grant seekers. I thought this was a bad American habit. But two years ago, at a vast gathering in London of charity personnel, both Michael Pattison of the Sainsbury Foundation Family Trust and Margaret Hyde of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation were explicit in warning people away from contacting their respective boards.

I think board members need to hear from people they know - it is a useful source of information. At a minimum, it adds perspective beyond that of even the most experienced foundation staff.

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