too often, philanthropy replicates the power dynamics
that it is trying to undo in society. Those holding the
purse strings are seen as all-powerful, and those requesting
funds feel like beggars. We interviewed a leader in grantmaking
who is working to turn these dynamics around: Rebecca
Rimel, the president and chief executive officer of the
Pew Charitable Trusts. Even though Pew ranks as one of
the country's largest private philanthropies (with an
annual grantmaking budget of about $180 million) many
of Rebecca's comments are applicable to individual funders.
When I heard you speak at a conference
last year, I was impressed by your passionate commitment
to making Pew respectful of grantees. How did you get
sensitized to this issue?
From my personal experience applying to foundations for
money. This was years ago, when I was in health research.
I'll never forget how intimidated I felt calling them
up, and how I worried each and
every day after I sent in the application.
Well, now that you're in charge of 120 staff members,
how do you imbue in them the same awareness and commitment?
First, I urge staff members to throw out traditional notions
about the "helpers and the helped." Grant applicants are
really our "customers", and like any business, we want
to serve our customers so they will come back. Grantees
are bringing to us their life's work, their best ideas.
I want our staff to treat them with the caring, respect,
and humility that this deserves.
It must be hard for staff to stay humble when they
are in this obvious power position relative to grantseekers.
How do you help your staff keep perspective on their service
Yes, it's a serious problem. Funders get treated with
deference even if they do a bad job. I tell my program
officers to notice the first time they're standing in
line at the bank or grocery store, and a small, huffy
voice wells up inside saying, "Why am I standing in line?
I'm too important for this!" When that happens, go home,
look yourself in the mirror and give yourself a good talking
to! Arrogance is a subtle infection that will spread if
you are not constantly attentive.
How do you help your staff have that kind of vigilance?
"Commitment to service" is like a constant drumbeat here.
We regularly give awards to staff members who have gone
that extra mile. We also encourage all staff to volunteer:
nothing counters arrogance like going canvassing and having
the door slammed in your face! Senior staff
are urged each year to take on the humbling challenge
of raising money for a cause of their choice. Finally,
we use humor, especially if we see people taking themselves
How do you break through that wall of deference to
get honest feedback and criticism from the folks you serve?
We use many methods. We have an ombudsperson, a trustworthy
and neutral person who actively goes into the nonprofit
community to solicit their comments. We send out surveys
with our publications that ask our constituents how we
can serve them better, and on our Internet Home Page we
encourage people to send us feedback about how we are
whenever we put out a request for proposals on specific
topics--a funding initiative--we first get extensive community
input to make sure we're on the mark.
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