I have just had the pleasure of reading Joel Orosz's 150 page Effective Foundation Management, published in 2007. Joel is a distinguished man, who takes the field and its mission seriously, and himself lightly. My introduction to him came via a post in which I not only misunderstood a quotation from him, but also misspelled his name. He left a friendly comment guiding me to a better understanding of the issues. He is a teacher who taught me, with a smile. The whole book is like that.
What are foundations for? How are they managed? How do they, why do they, defeat themselves? Why are they less ambitious and less effective on average than they might be? Why are so many foundations so timid, even in what they attempt, much less accomplish? Can they ever become forces for counter-hegemonic social change, or will they almost always be forces to preserve and ameliorate the status quo enjoyed by their "well bred, well read and well fed" funders and boards?
For those inside the foundation world the book may be both instructive and disruptive. For those of us who only know foundations from the outside, the book is immensely helpful as an introduction to the culture and ideology of the world of staffed foundations.
My "take away" from the book is that the "active agent" in social change is unlikely to come from large, staffed foundations, with august and largely conservative boards, who are diffident, fearful of failure, and chary of courting controversy. We are more likely to see risk taking and innovation and eccentric passion from those new to philanthropy who may or may not create a foundation at all.
Entrepreneurial grassroots philanthropy is actually the world I work in, with clients in transition. For them this book would be a cautionary tale and might lead them to think of spending their foundation down, rather than creating an organization that will go on forever, but maybe drift from the founder's risk-taking, social change attitude. Or, having read the book, they might decide to start a social venture instead, or plow their dollars and their talent right now directly into a nonprofit social project. At the very least by reading this book they could look ahead a generation or two and consider how their foundation will stay on track with the founder's ideals and passion, as the foundation becomes, for want of a better word, bureaucratic and professionalized.
A final note, Joel's prose is elegant, clear, and aphoristic. Sentence by sentence it is a pleasure to read. He quotes Hegel on tragedy as the splitting of the ethical substance. That sure out classes me quoting Seneca on cultivating humanity. But to quote these great thinkers at all is subversive of MBA pieties. The appropriate range of reference for philanthropy as civics is just not taught in B-School. Let's hope it will be in The Grant-Making School Joel has founded. Maybe the curriculum could admit of a course on satire in various ages of empire? If so, I am available and work for tidbits of apple like a tame deer. Maybe we could get a grant?