I Want Your Job

 In Foundations, Fred's Blog, Fred's Blog, Giving, Money, People, Philanthropy, Trust, Vocation
Listen to “I Want Your Job.”

 

People often ask how they can get a position as a grantmaker with a foundation. It seems sensible that donors with foundations would want help in the work of giving money. Over the years, I have had scores of people looking for individuals, families and private foundations who recognize the need for staff or consultants to assist them in their giving. I am sure there are some degree programs out there that are designed to help prepare someone for the work. For instance, The Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University has a degree program in philanthropic studies. The RGK Center for Philanthropy at the University of Texas has formal programs in philanthropy and voluntarism.However most of the academic work in “philanthropy” is actually designed for fund-raisers and non-profit leaders.

There are many programs for donors and families of donors to help them become more competent and knowledgeable.  The National Center for Family Philanthropy hosts many programs for families. As well, the Philanthropy Roundtable is a highly regarded resource for family foundations and donors. Exponent Philanthropy is specially designed for foundations with few or no staff.

The most well-known and largest organization for professional grantmakers is the Council on Foundations and it has extensive programs and resources. However, the above organizations are for those who are already in the field of grantmaking or those wanting formal preparation for working in non-profits. To my knowledge, none of these really prepare you for getting into the role of a grantmaker. So…how do you do that?

I’ve run down a list of my peers in this field and the variety of backgrounds is interesting. They have been teachers, attorneys, accountants, coaches, researchers, fund-raisers, financial services professionals, non-profit leaders, ministers, missionaries, and college/seminary presidents. There is probably no one field that is a primary source for foundation staff. Because they come from so many backgrounds it is almost impossible to find a pattern. There is no one discipline where I could say “Get into that field and it will most naturally lead you to future work in a foundation.” As far as I know, there is no search firm that serves this market. It’s too personal and not yet an established profession. Maybe it will be one day but not for now. The one common characteristic I have seen across the board is they had a relationship with a donor and/or their family and the donor trusted them. How do you position yourself for that? I don’t know that you can.

If I were giving advice to anyone wanting to get into this field, it would be something that sounds completely simplistic. Be trustworthy in whatever you are doing. You can never know when a person creating a foundation will begin to think about staffing but I can tell you this. Whenever I hear them talking about why they picked a particular person it is rarely their professional skills that attracted them. They talk about their ability to trust them. They don’t talk about their professional preparation for the work (although that may be true five or ten years from now) but about their personal trust and regard for their integrity. The old saying is true: “Trust comes on foot and leaves in a Ferrari.” It takes years to build and is often gone in a moment.

That then is my advice. It doesn’t matter much what work you choose as a profession. Whatever it is, build a reputation of trust and my guess is you will show up on the radar of someone with a foundation or a desire to make substantial gifts. It will probably surprise you as much as it has so many others.

Fred Smith
Fred Smith is a graduate of Denver University and Harvard Divinity School. He spent several years as teacher and administrator at Charlotte Christian School and The Stony Brook School before co-founding Leadership Network with Bob Buford and serving as President for 12 years. Fred is the Founder and President of The Gathering, an international association of individuals, families and private foundations giving to Christian ministries. Fred will tell you his true vocation is that of a Sunday School teacher and it is this role for which he would most like to be remembered. Fred and his wife, Carol, have two grown daughters and a son-in-law. They also have three well-loved grandchildren.
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Showing 16 comments
  • Howard Freeman
    Reply

    All true.

  • David Spence
    Reply

    It also helps to be loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent!

  • Drew Anderson
    Reply

    Fred, As always you are very wise and insightful. I would add that if you operate in a field as a grantee( staff person , executive leader or board member), try to learn from the experience and be a great grantee who is helpful, positive, kind hearted and aware of what is happening beyond your specific role. You might discover people in philanthropy as you build and demonstrate trust that could set useful examples( both good and bad instances) for you later.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Drew. You have been one of those people from whom I have learned.

  • Connor Skelly
    Reply

    Great post, Fred. I had not heard the expression, “Trust comes on foot and leaves in a Ferrari,” but it definitely rings true. Keep up the good work.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      I thought it was pretty descriptive as well as being true. What are you working on now?

      • Connor Skelly
        Reply

        Working on a research project studying how and when funder collaborations can drive greater impact (and when they can’t). Just getting started, but pretty interesting thus far!

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          I hope you will keep me in the loop on this one, Connor.

  • Heather Tuininga
    Reply

    Good wisdom Fred. I have told so many folks this same thing over time – when asked the question “how do I get a job like yours?” Thank you for sharing this…and you can add “government fiscal analyst” to your list above of professions we have come from. 🙂

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Heather – I will add that in the next edition. We’re coming to Seattle in October.

  • Annette Oltmans
    Reply

    Hi Fred,
    I too have never heard the phrase, ” Trust comes on foot and leaves in a Ferrari,” but I will use it. Surely we have all witnessed or experienced it. When I speak to young folks who have made life altering mistakes in their lives where they feel they can never be viewed differently or those who are incarcerated and wonder how they will secure employment once they’re released. A simple old expression comes to mind, “Attitude above aptitude.” I encourage them to work on their character, obviously through Biblical teachings but in so doing I use specifics Christ based models for how to interface with others since most have had horrible role models. It’s heart wrenching to experience how they hunger for and cling to specificity on this topic. Love your blog posts Fred!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Annette. I like the phrase, “How would you like to be remembered for the worst thing you ever did?” None of us would. Thank you for the work you do.

  • Keith Sparzak
    Reply

    Fred,

    Nice and concise. Good seminal info for the seeker of such a weighty role and all the responsibility that comes with it (or should come with it).

    In addition to all of the other professional skills, experience, and character qualities (e.g. trustworthiness) to be a solid “foundation-type”, it warrants a strong mentioning of the word “motivation”.

    I had many folks over my nine years at CT ask the very question you raised in this blog. Too often, I either sensed or knew right out that the inquirers’ motives were skewed. Not good. Giving money away can be intoxicating. It took all I had at times to make certain my own motives were God-honoring. If someone wants to be a part of the philanthropic community, they HAVE to be people who seek first God’s Kingdom and cast away any unhealthy/unholy urges to have his or her identity bolstered by the influence that comes with the position.

    Keep up the good writing!

    Keith

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Keith. It’s good to hear from you. It can be toxic in so many ways and, from my vantage point, you never gave in! Good counsel, my friend.

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