Up from Obscurity

September 23, 2015

Modesty is a personal virtue, but it can be a vice for foundations and their causes. Paul Grogan of the Boston Foundation recently explained why.

 

This summer, two books landed on my desk that I would never have expected a few years ago. Both were expansive, beautifully produced tributes to foundations. One was Laying Foundations for Change, a massive, mainly photographic retrospective of the Atlantic Philanthropies’ 30 years of grantmaking for capital projects, primarily buildings at universities and health centers. The book was remarkable not only for its size (bigger, almost literally, than a breadbox), but also for being an exuberant celebration of an institution and a philanthropist, the international retail titan Charles F. Feeney, who for most of their lives had obsessively shunned publicity. (Grantees used to be threatened with legal action if they disclosed the source of their grants.) Now, clearly, the curtain had been raised and the orchestra was playing fortissimo. The foundation has even undertaken a series of gala book launches on four continents to promote the publication and its message: that grants for buildings are as powerful a way of supporting social change as grants for people and organizations.

The other book, from the Boston Foundation, was neither quite so large nor quite so out of character. The Boston Foundation in the City of Ideas: 1915-2015 is a centennial celebration of one of the country’s oldest community foundations, and it was clearly meant to help that institution complete an ambitious capital campaign to add $200 million to its unrestricted endowment. For the last 14 years under its current president, Paul S. Grogan, the foundation has been a visibly ambitious and outspoken actor in Boston’s public and civic life. But until Grogan’s arrival, the Boston Foundation had operated according to a code of strict self-effacement, known and respected among foundations but virtually anonymous everywhere else.

“The culture of the foundation had been to be quiet and behind-the-scenes,” Grogan explained at the inaugural session of Duke’s Foundation Impact Research Group (FIRG) for the 2015-16 academic year, “not to put itself forward in any way, not to be visible. Part of that was the decorous Brahmin heritage of the foundation.” But also, he said, the staff and board believed “that if attention was going to be paid in this world, it really ought to be focused on grantees. The Boston Foundation didn’t need to be known.” When Grogan arrived, he found it “shocking, the obscurity into which the foundation had sunk.”

Obscurity for the Boston Foundation ended abruptly and deliberately in 2001; at Atlantic the change came later and was more gradual. But both institutions found their public voice through essentially the same reasoning. As Grogan put it, “There are ways to have impact beyond grantmaking. … While humility is an admirable personal quality, for an institution that’s trying to grow and have an impact and make a difference,” official diffidence is a burden, not an asset. Efforts to reform practice and policy, galvanize movements, inspire other donors, lend credibility to reformers and innovators — all these things call for visibility, stature, and vigorous promotion. Quiet modesty may be the mantle of saints and sages, but for philanthropy it’s a straitjacket.

Some foundations and philanthropists have come under fire for courting publicity. And a few celebrity donors have surely blurred the line between advocacy for a cause and unbridled self-promotion. But the message of these two new publications, and of Grogan’s FIRG presentation, is that impact is an immodest enterprise, in which the tools include not only money and wisdom, but at least a modest helping of chutzpah.

You can watch Grogan’s whole presentation here. The section on foundation visibility comes around the 23-minute mark.

(photo credit: Bill Damon, used under Creative Commons license.)

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