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Career Story: Administrator Of A Charitable Foundation

Administrator Of A Charitable Foundation

Job Title: CEO Of Family Foundation

Type of Company: A family foundation with interests in the arts and culture, human rights and civil liberties, education, health, the environment, the Himalayan plateau and New York City.

Education: BA, Political Science, UC-Berkeley •• MA (and ABD), Political Science, Yale

Previous Experience: 1966-7 faculty Stillman College (pol sci) 1969-71 faculty Kirkland College (pol sci) 1971-2005 faculty Duke University (public policy)

Job Tasks: I supervise a staff of five people. We evaluate letters of inquiry from organizations in need of philanthropic support in our areas of interest. From of few of these organizations we invite grant proposals, and we evaluate those proposals and make recommendations to out trustees. We usually meet the leadership of any organization we fund, and our decisions are based partly on the evident energy and intelligence of those people, as well as the logic of their plan.

The foundation also has some projects funded internally, the largest of which is a major web site, making images from more than two dozen museums available on the web. A small in-house project is Music and Memory, a plan to provide Alzheimer's patients and other infirm and elderly people with personalized music (on iPods), so that they can listen as they like to music that has deep resonance for them.

I am in charge of overall budgeting and planning, hiring, and I handle many of our relationships with our trustees. Our founder and lead trustee is in the office most of every day. So my job also includes serving as his writer of choice for speeches and policy communications, particularly matters having to do with the museum he donated and of which he is the CEO.

Some of my time is taken up by meetings with other people in philanthropic organizations, looking for collaborative opportunities. And some of my time is spent giving advice to people who will not receive grants, but whose works seems of particular value to me.

I spend two or three hours every day on email, and at least an hour a day drafting memos for our founder. No one day is like another, and my job requires that I stay reasonably well informed about a very broad range of interests: Himalayan art and culture; the politics and social and environmental problems of the Himalayan region; leadership in that region, especially among the Tibetan Buddhists; university education, especially for undergraduates, about the region. I am also keeping up with many US issues and problems: cultural and arts policy in New York and nationally; problems of public health and sanitation; the history of the labor movement; electronic efforts aimed at defeating censorship.

I am fortunate in not having to deal much with the Foundation's investments, but I do spend some time with our bookkeeper and accountant, keeping track of our financial affairs, and I am also the point of contact for the Foundation's lawyer.

In addition to my daytime work, I attend a fair number of evening meetings and events as a representative of the foundation.

Best and Worst Parts of the Job: The best part of the job is the variety. On any given day I may find myself meeting with an architect who has a plan for earthquake-resistant housing; a notable Buddhist lama from Nepal; a leading psychiatrist interested in the museum's planned exhibition about Jung and the Jungian interest in Tibetan art; the leader of a public health school for a discussion of the elements of national health care reform; television executives about problems of funding for documentaries and for arts coverage on public television; and leaders of an organization that helps classical musicians organize benefit concerts for their favorite charities.

The worst part of the job is the flip side of the best. My day has too many starts and stops; it is hard to hold focus or to finish projects. Our founder is impatient and has a limited attention span; his endless fund of bright new ideas often has the effect of undermining his good ideas of a week or a month or year before.

Job Tips: Most philanthropic leaders have had broad experience in more than one field, and few have had long careers in philanthropy. If you want to be a philanthropic leader, don't spend too much time as a program officer at a big foundation.

Experience with grantees is important; working with good non-profit organizations and understanding their leadership and funding problems is invaluable.

Grant-making is about relationships. Get to know trustworthy and good-hearted leaders in areas that interest you. Learn also to deal with philanthropists, many of whom are impatient, confident, self-made entrepreneurs. One important skill is the ability to combine enthusiasm about someone else's ideas with appropriate doubts and reservations. Yes! is a valuable word. (But) is a crucial part of getting to the right decision.

Additional Thoughts: It is terrifically important not to spend too much time on the parts of the job at which you are not very good. Many do the opposite: people who are clumsy writers spend too much time writing. (Hire a writer!) People with no head for figures struggle too long with accounting. (Hire a book-keeper who is good at explaining). Polish the skills you have. Do more of what you like; you can excel at that part of your job.

Nothing is more important than having an ethical bottom line. Organizations can make unwise and even wasteful decisions at times, and you may not be able to keep those from happening. But you must hold the line against self-dealing or any other kind of dishonesty or law-breaking. You have to be able to say no to your trustees and your fellow staff members -- and you have to be willing to resign if decisions are made that are ethically indefensible.

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