Bricks, Mortar, and Meaning

May 21, 2015

A lot of foundations automatically shun proposals for buildings. There are good reasons to reconsider.

 

 

 

Among all the possible uses for foundation grants, buildings don’t get much respect. Many foundations won’t accept proposals for buildings at all, and those that do often treat those proposals with far greater skepticism than other kinds of projects. Families and individual donors may have more appetite for funding bricks and mortar, if only to create lasting monuments or memorials. But even that is more the exception than the rule.

 

When he was fundraising for causes related to justice and human rights in post-apartheid South Africa, Constitutional Court Justice Albie Sachs concluded that any effort to raise money for buildings was just “wasting our time. … Money could go for equipment, salaries, transport, and conferences, but never, ever for buildings.”

 

The Atlantic Philanthropies has been an exception to that rule, thanks largely to the personal passion of its founder, Charles F. Feeney, for supporting universities, research centers, laboratories, libraries, and hospitals — what he calls “good buildings for good minds.” A while ago, when the Foundation started compiling a photographic record of Mr. Feeney’s bricks-and-mortar grants, I wrote a little reflection on why such grants, if done properly, are not just the purchase of a product. They’re an investment in an enterprise, a long-term underwriting of the work that goes on inside.

 

The key is how to do capital projects well. So, in my reflection on Atlantic’s experience, I sketched out seven principles of smart capital philanthropy, drawn largely from Atlantic’s experience. This week, the Foundation Center’s blog, called Philantopic, reprinted what I wrote. If you’re interested — and especially if you’re among the capital skeptics — you might find the piece provocative.

 

Of course, Atlantic will not be around much longer. It is purposefully emptying its endowment, building toward a huge but final series of farewell grants over the coming year. A few of those are for buildings, but most are not. Unless Atlantic’s message about the philanthropic possibilities of smart capital grants starts to win converts, the tiny circle of enthusiastic funders of buildings may soon become even smaller.

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Tony Proscio

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Rip Rapson
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The Kresge Foundation