A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

What Can Funders Learn From Dropping the Ball?

At Exponent Philanthropy’s 2018 National Conference, author Tiffany Dufu introduced a simple yet novel concept that helps her thrive in her professional and personal life: dropping the ball.

As Dufu’s responsibilities increased at work, her husband took on a more demanding job with greater travel, and the two became parents, there were not enough hours to get everything done. After struggling to navigate the many demands on her time while holding herself to the standard of perfection, Dufu realized it was impossible to keep up. So she embraced the concept of dropping the ball.

To Dufu, dropping the ball is the realization that you can’t do everything and should instead focus on the things that matter to you. So it goes with funders: There is value in focusing on the work that moves your mission forward.

Don’t run your foundation on autopilot

Dufu and her husband realized they were managing their household on autopilot, never stopping to think about how to divide the work more equitably.

Foundations, especially ones that have been around for many years, often operate under the same approach. Certain board members or board positions are always responsible for specific activities, and staff members are responsible for other tasks. Patterns develop and perpetuate over time, and new individuals often fall into filling the same roles in the same ways. But are your habits leaving opportunities on the table to work more efficiently or more effectively?

Build the habit of routinely evaluating how your work gets done, and by whom. Think about others’ strengths and situations. Who has investment know-how? Who is in touch with community needs? Which tasks require someone to live near your grantees? What can be done remotely?

Name your priorities

Realizing there were more tasks than time in the day led Dufu to name her priorities, identify the activities critical to those priorities, and allow other tasks to be outsourced or dropped completely. Foundations can take the same approach: What is your mission, what work supports that mission, and what work can you outsource?

If you are a board-run organization, it might make sense to outsource your administration so you can focus on building connections with grantees or partnering with other organizations. If you have the budget for staff, keep your executive director focused on your mission, not learning the intimate details of accounting or investment management. These tasks are important, but you can easily outsource them to experts and give your staff more time to focus on your mission.

Let go of others’ expectations

Dufu describes her life’s work as advancing women and girls and raising her children to be globally conscious citizens. As she began to filter her daily tasks through the lens of these priorities, she had to let go of other people’s expectations about what it means to be a good mother, for example. It became acceptable in her family to order takeout from time to time instead of cooking at home or miss an occasional classmate’s birthday party.

Many funders could benefit from the same self-reflection. There are many worthy causes that people in your community want you to support, but if you give a little to each one, you aren’t going to move the needle. Can you let go of others’ expectations about what you should support and instead focus on your mission?

When to drop the ball, and when to keep juggling

Dufu’s “drop the ball” philosophy helped her free up time to focus on what matters to her, but it was a long journey. She relied on her family, friends, and mentors to help her navigate the process. As we heard from Dufu, she is still juggling quite a bit, but she knows which balls to focus on, which ones to pass off, and which ones she doesn’t need to keep in the air all the time.

If you are interested in refining the skills funders need to juggle the many balls that come with small-staffed philanthropy, look to your peers and mentors to help you navigate the process. Exponent Philanthropy’s Master Juggler Executive Institute is a great opportunity for funders looking for expert instruction and peer support.

Content manager Brendan McCormick works with Exponent Philanthropy’s Content Services team to develop resources and programs for members, focusing on investments and community foundations. Prior to joining Exponent Philanthropy, Brendan worked as the grants and awards coordinator at the National Trust for Historic Preservation; program coordinator for outreach, instruction, and communication at University of Maryland’s College Park Scholars Public Leadership Program; and as a fellow at the Greater Washington Community Foundation.

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