From Floundering to Flourishing – How to turn around a foundation that’s falling short

We recently met with a company whose Corporate Foundation is struggling to stay relevant as it reaches its five year anniversary. Unfortunately this is an all-too-common scenario. Let’s face it, developing and managing an effective foundation is not a company’s core business.

This doesn’t mean the company doesn’t mean well. In this situation, as part of an effort to be inclusive and democratic, the Foundation is run by a committee of senior executives. That’s the same company leadership that is already extremely busy tackling a steady stream of strategic issues – profitability, raw material pricing and sourcing, merits of M&A, employees worried about their security, just to start. No surprise the Foundation lacks a day-to-day champion.

Successful business leaders are running lean and mean machines, creating efficiencies and demanding ROI across the ledger. So why should a Foundation have any less a standard?  If the Foundation were a business unit at this company, its poor performance would not be tolerated. So why let corporate giving slide for so long?

Whether a global conglomerate, a small start-up or even a private family foundation, initiatives managed by committee struggle to stay on top any one person’s list of priorities. As a result, the cause eventually loses its momentum and becomes little more than a drain on time and resources. Then five years later someone asks how did this fail and who gets pinged with the blame?

There are several steps in turning around a floundering foundation, starting with defining its purpose. I don’t mean the charitable mission, but why have a foundation at all? Be honest. It’s entirely ok if your capacity is limited to making a few cash donations a year. But in that case, rather that create a foundation structure, you’re better off to have a Corporate Giving Program or Charity Gift program. That sets a different expectation for participation beyond the dollar donation, has no minimum gift requirement and no obligation to file public paperwork. The looser structure allows the donor to evolve.

However, should the purpose be further evolved as an element of a larger social responsibility initiative, then run it like a business- have support from the very top of the organization, clearly articulate why it exists, have a mission and make someone accountable for making it work, complete with measurement metrics .

With the roadmap in hand, it gets easier to determine what kind of impact a foundation can make. Anywhere from enabling more students to attend college, to really bold ideas, where working across the enterprise and by collaborating with non profits (versus purely making cash donations) the company creates a market leadership position out of it.

A great example of such a bold corporate-social partnership is a project by Group Danone (yes, the yogurt company) and Grameen Bank where they created a joint venture with the single purpose to produce nutritious and low cost food for poor and undernourished children in Bangladesh. The program has not only helped improve the nutrition in the community, but new production factories have created jobs there too.

Group Danone teaches an important lesson to the initial Company we met, defining why you want to give and what should come from it. Looking through that lens will help redefine success or failure. Indeed the best course for the Corporate Foundation we encountered earlier, given their operational priorities and bandwidth, may be to lower the expectations of their charitable giving instead of ramping up the program right now.   

If you need help deciding what makes sense for your Foundation let us help you assess where you are and provide options for where you might go. You might be surprised and delighted by what’s possible.


About christengraham

President of Giving Strong, Inc. Christen advises businesses, foundations and families for how to make a greater social impact.