Like money, knowledge is a valuable currency for funders, so it is not surprising that key elements of university culture maintain tenacious roots in philanthropic organizations. As with banking, many aspects of university culture contribute to foundation effectiveness, including the priority placed on written analysis, intellectual stewardship and careful decision-making. Like universities, foundations value background research and highly analytic thinking in developing strategy and grant recommendations. Like universities, many foundations value learning and evaluation, both for improvement and for demonstrating that programs and ideas work.

On the other hand, foundations can be hampered by an overemphasis on rigor and analysis and by the fiefdom-like silos that can isolate different program areas. The internal organization of foundations by departments according to discipline reflects the departmental structure of universities. Similarly, foundations’ division between program staff and operations staff mirrors the university culture of treating faculty and staff as two different classes. Just as in the university, there are typically limited (or no) incentives for cross-silo collaboration, a problem that is exacerbated by squabbles over budget and influence over institutional priorities.

Funders often have a bias toward commissioning studies and plans to iteratively research, discuss and refine an issue rather than be seen as acting in a precipitous fashion. While analysis can be important for planning purposes, it can also contribute to a lack of a sense of urgency, much like university-based researchers who prioritize scholarly inquiry over external deadlines.

Foundation enthusiasm for theories of change, logic models and summative evaluation can also trace its roots to academic discourse. This type of evaluative thinking can help funders and their partners set goals and think through intermediate steps. At the same time, grantmaking rarely fits neatly into a static model. Funders influenced by social science research and the experimental paradigm often conceive of funding initiatives as social experiments, with the idea that appropriate evaluation will illuminate what is most promising or “scalable.” While this rigorous testing can contribute to knowledge and understanding, it is often not implemented with sufficient funds, time or capacity support. The field has also struggled to match the right approaches to evaluation with diverse kinds of work and partner interests.

Just as banks have a culture of exclusivity, universities have a similar shadow side: a tendency toward elitism, including a preoccupation with credentials, status and prestige, resulting in a lack of respect for the ideas and prior experience of “practitioners.” Foundation staff may prioritize scholarly advice from well-known experts and become less open to input from grantees, communities and peers. “We have always focused on developing expertise in each of our program areas and have paid great deference to the ‘expert’ when making decisions,” observed Ann Stern, president and CEO of the Houston Endowment. “We’re trying to make sure we continue to grow and honor that expertise, but make sure we also get the checks and balances of the real world to keep us intellectually honest and down to earth.”

While some strides have been made in engaging community stakeholders meaningfully — including attempts to diversify foundation boards and staff, obtain feedback from grantees and beneficiaries, and engage communities in evaluation — this type of change requires attention to power dynamics and can be challenging to existing foundation cultures. “We believe that the problems and solutions are both within the community, so we have to truly respect the voices of the community,” said Susan Zepeda, president of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky Inc. “But every so often we still have a board member who doesn’t like the community’s plan. Sometimes we still need to go to the mat to override objections when a community has spoken.” 

THINK ABOUT: To what extent does the “source code” of university culture show up in your organization’s language, behavior and assumptions? Which aspects of this source code are important to keep? Which aspects need to go?