Last week I wrote a post on the efforts of foundations to encourage diversity (of various forms) in nonprofit arts organizations, in which I suggested that such efforts could be construed as a form of coercion. In particular, I discussed a new initiative at the Irvine Foundation and suggested that Irvine has been trying to “coax” its grantees into uncharted territory and “coerce” them into behavior that some are not ready or willing to adopt. In response to my post, Ted Russell at the Irvine Foundation tweeted the excellent question, “We’re coaxing. But when is that coercive?”
Yesterday, Barry Hessenius at Barry’s Blog wrote a post astutely synthesizing a few of the recent posts on this topic of “funding diversity” (including my own, for which I’m grateful) and offering his own thoughtful perspectives on several issues, including philanthropic coercion:
Individual organizations are less interested in systemic sector wide change, no matter how lofty the purpose or how much they may embrace the concept and agree with the goal. It’s really not their job to do so.
But, it is the legitimate job of funders; and foundations that have determined that sector wide systemic change (of whatever sort) is one of their objectives, not only have the right, but arguably the obligation to implement strategies – even ones that make demands of their grantees – that they believe may help reach those objectives. One can argue such strategies are ill conceived, that they don’t work, that being too ambitious without allowing ample time and resource allocation to give the strategies a chance to succeed is a formula for failure – but I don’t think their underlying attempt to make systemic change is necessarily coercive. Or, if it is, I think they have the right to be coercive (and a lot of change comes about only becomes it is coerced.) How else can systemic change come about, if no one is permitted to make even the attempt?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ted Russell’s question the past few days. While I agree with Barry that foundations (to the limits of their tax codes) should be able to set priorities as they see fit, I would suggest that with the power that one wields as a major funder (in a particular field or region) comes the burden to take responsibility for not only where one’s investments are made, but where they are withdrawn.
I once heard a lecture at Stanford University by Jim Phills, Jr. (author of Integrating Mission and Strategy for Nonprofit Organizations) in which he said that the more desperate an organization is for resources the less control it has over its destiny (i.e., the more likely it is to do things that are not in line with its own mission and strategy in order to obtain resources).
To coax is to persuade gently and gradually.
To coerce has many definitions but as I’m using it I would suggest that it entails pressuring another party (through action or inaction) to act in a manner that goes against their will.
For an organization that has a history of funding from Irvine, then the current shift could result in two perceived threats: (1) loss of financial support that is critical and (2) loss of the imprimatur of the Foundation. Given the possible impacts of such losses, such an organization could quite reasonably begin to feel strong pressure to adopt strategies that are not currently in line with its mission, vision or values.
I understand that foundations change their strategies with good reason. As I mentioned in my last post, it seemed that Irvine was quite thoughtful in developing its new strategy. And Irvine may be “coaxing” (from its point of view).
But if its longstanding grantees perceive that they will be out in the cold if they are not on board with the new strategy?
Well, to my mind, this is where coaxing begins to feel like coercion.