Foundation Elites At Work: We Risk Losing Touch With Average Americans

Professionalization has brought its benefits to charities but it has also increased the distance between nonprofit leaders and the people they aim to help. Nicole Wallace documented the presence of creeping elitism in her article “Elites at Work” published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (March 7, 2017). She interviewed nonprofit leaders who confessed that they share more in common with their wealthy donors than with the people they serve. 

Such elitism seems to be under a microscope around the world as evidenced by the rise of populists like President Donald Trump and Candidate Bernie Sanders in the recent Presidential election.  Perhaps nonprofit and foundation leaders have more in common with the bureaucratic denizens of the swamp President Trump (and millions of others) hopes to drain than with the middle and working classes.  Few leaders of the Democrat party nor many of the Republican party recognized the pent-up anger and resentment unleashed on elitists in a string of upheavals around the world like the Occupy Wall Street takeover, the Arab Spring, Brexit and the weakening of the European Union as rebellious parties continued to win elections in Switzerland, Norway, Italy, Austria, and Greece. Creeping elitism is apparently entrenched in almost every corner of the business, government and nonprofit worlds and it is being forcefully brought to heel in a wave of populism focused on the common citizen, not the elite.

The attitude of the elites and well-trained professionals occasionally found at the top of nonprofits and foundations has a few implications for philanthropy. First, an elite attitude can build a wall between the nonprofits and those they aim to help because they simply don’t understand their clients and the lives they live. Under such leadership, a lot of money can be wasted on well-designed but ungrounded “solutions” to social problems.  Second, elitism is costly to donors as more layers of supervision are added to organizations to insulate top nonprofit executives from regular contact with the unwashed masses. Each layer of bureaucracy is one more institutional hurdle to decision making.  Unnecessary bureaucratic layers in nonprofits can impede effective responses in addition to adding to gridlock and sapping financial reserves.  Finally, elites in nonprofits and foundations are far less frequently challenged by those they seek to serve or to fund. This reluctance at open communication reduces the feedback loop that might otherwise help nonprofits correct erroneous program assumptions and develop more effective and cost efficient responses to the social problems they are trying to address.

There are a few antidotes to the dangers of creeping elitism. Here are four that come to mind.

Know Your End-Client. Foundation leaders should better understand the clients that their grantees hope to serve and not stop all contact at the level of well-mannered nonprofit leaders. Elitism among foundation leaders can flourish easily in the rarefied atmosphere of board rooms populated by lawyers and bankers. Searching out ways to connect on level with the homeless, drug-addicted and disadvantaged will reinforce the value of foundation gifts and perhaps make them more sensitive to reality.

Hire people from more modest backgrounds. As noted by J. D. Vance in “Hillbilly Elegy” it’s almost impossible for someone to move up from being dirt poor.  It is equally difficult for those born into privilege to understand the lives of families with legacies of abuse, alcoholism, poverty and trauma.  Hiring people from modest backgrounds helps break the cycle of decline and offers a hand up while opening a window of understanding for leaders in foundations.

Lower the emphasis on academic credentials. Every open position doesn’t require a college degree.  Foundations are often plagued by fancy jargon, fancy clothes and fancy offices. They can exude an air of superiority that is only enhanced by fancy degrees.  An advanced education is laudable and can be a key to success, but there are those without degrees that have “street smarts” that can help your foundation be successful in their world.

Delegate decisions. Delegate to the lowest appropriate level in the organization.  It is well accepted that the balance between delegation and accountability is an indicator of inventive and effective organizations. Delegation can also be a tool to disrupt the sense of elitism in a foundation.  When a program officer and a grantee are empowered to adapt a grant project to quickly changing conditions, foundations gain a reputation for listening rather than one of hierarchy and paper-shuffling.

Staying in touch with common Americans will vitalize foundations and nonprofits to produce uncommon benefits. 

Other relevant reading from Inside Philanthropy:

Callahan, David. 2016, “Baypassed: How Philanthropy Forgot About the White Working Class”. Inside Philanthropy,

Callahan, David. 2016, “Philanthropy in the Age of Trump: Six Predictions”. Inside Philanthropy,

Williams, Tate. 2016, “Everything We Care For. The Future of Progressive Philanthropy Under Trump”. Inside Philanthropy,

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