I Want Your Job
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.