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It’s not easy being uncommon

The Kauffman Foundation has partnered with five other foundations and FSG to explore how foundations and other philanthropies are changing internal practices and adapting new approaches to create social change.

The Kauffman Foundation aspires to eliminate barriers so that every person – regardless of background – can take risks, achieve success, and give back to communities.

To effectively undertake this ambitious and complex goal requires the right staffing structure, hiring practices, and training to support each Foundation associates’ success. Over the course of the past two years, we have begun experimenting with staffing philosophy, structure, and design, as well as strengthening our internal high-performance culture.

What we found was that being innovative and uncommon presented some basic challenges. There were big picture questions: “What’s the best organization structure to achieve community impact?”, “How do we best define roles for clarity?”, “How can we break down silos and get more cross-team thinking?” and “How do we give people the tools and support to do their evolving jobs effectively?” And, in addition to these questions, there were the practical challenges around how to design teams to be more nimble while playing to the strength of each associate. While we wouldn’t say we’re there yet in addressing these challenges, we’re excited about the progress we’re making.

Listening to learn

As a general practice, our Foundation prioritizes listening and learning from the communities we work with and our peers. We firmly believe that listening first helps us figure out how we can best do the work.

So, we partnered with five other Foundations – Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Democracy Fund, Humanity United, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and The Omidyar Group – to support an exploration by FSG. FSG, a consultancy that works with foundations, nonprofits, and other organizations seeking to create social change, distilled key themes from conversations with 114 leaders and staff from 50 funders and 8 philanthropic services organizations in a new report, Being the Change. FSG interviewed a cross-section of the foundation field, including executives, program officers, advisors, as well as 48 people representing functional areas such as evaluation, people, communications, and operations.

The intent of this project was to explore how foundations and other philanthropies are changing internal practices as a means of adapting to new approaches to create social change.

The learning and use

Some themes emerged from these conversations: Many foundations are experimenting with new practices, as well as exploring ways to foster connectivity, vibrancy and deep engagement both internally (across all people and parts of their organization) and externally (with grantees, community members, and other partners), which should ultimately open new avenues for impact.

This study provides a thoughtful framework for rethinking organizational structure and staffing required to achieve significant impact. The study calls out key considerations – breaking silos to foster collaboration, engaging diverse perspectives, connecting every role to direct impact – when considering staffing models. In addition, it challenges old ways of thinking about staff size in relation to grantmaking size.

We hope this study fosters ongoing dialogue and learning that will ultimately spur further innovation in how foundations structure themselves to take on complex challenges.


What does it look like from inside a foundation? This occasional Currents series will shed light on how the Kauffman Foundation’s internal workings strive to find uncommon ways to create opportunities and connect people to the tools they need to achieve success, change their futures and give back.

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