Before taking on the work of philanthropy and grantmaking, I was a gubernatorial appointee in charge of environmental policies for the Commonwealth of Virginia. The first Governor I worked for used to keep a sign prominently displayed on his desk. It said, “Today is opportunity day. Do something!” What a great attitude for those of us in philanthropy to emulate.
How often do we look at each day as an opportunity?
Foundations are among the rarest of organizations because they have the ability to do something useful each day if they choose to do so. Our foundation chose to focus on improving the quality of the environment by funding groups that could change public policy on the environment, mostly in Virginia but also occasionally with national impact. I found that the most important question I could ask both each day and each year, when I reviewed the previous year’s grantmaking, was, “What needs doing in our priority areas?”
To answer that question, I quickly learned, it was necessary to ask other people, people more experienced, knowledgeable, or smarter than I. What did they think needed doing? What in particular did they think our foundation could be doing that would be uniquely helpful?
This line of questioning led us deeper into explorations of our ability to contribute time, experience, and funding in unique ways, ways that neither government agencies nor the private sector could or would be able to do.
Let’s face it: Foundations have that rare capacity to take both the long view and the unique role. We can invite others to the table to discuss what needs doing, what’s already being done, and what might be done that isn’t being done. We can talk especially about what foundations, working with partners over time and leveraging their resources, can do to make a difference, have an impact, do something today, tomorrow, and for as long as progress is evident and results look promising.
One example of this approach occurred about 15 years ago after the multistate/federal Chesapeake Bay Program released its Chesapeake 2000 recommendations and commitments for cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay. Because our foundation was actively involved in improving public policy on the environment, and because we also funded projects to implement new policies, we were curious to see what we might do to move the states and federal EPA forward on meeting the goals of the new Chesapeake Bay Agreement.
One commitment caught our eye in particular: Multispecies Management, which had three objectives that intended by 2007 to change the way the Bay’s fisheries were managed, moving from a “how much did you catch last year” approach to a scientific, ecosystem-based approach that reflected the reality of population dynamics, predator-prey relationships, fishing levels, pollution inputs, and other factors that contribute to defining and managing a sustainable fishery in the Bay.
One of our board members asked what was actually being done about all this, which was very little indeed, so the board said, “Let’s find out what needs doing here.” After a few months of interviewing scientists, legislators, policymakers, and public interest groups, I made a recommendation to the board: We need to jump-start a new fisheries research program that will begin the hard work needed to achieve the commitment’s multiple objectives. We had the funds available; we had a bright young post-doc researcher at the College of William and Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science; and we had some potential funding partners.
That program is now the preeminent multispecies, ecosystem-based fisheries management program in the country, and scored its first success with a first-ever plan to manage the commercially valuable, ecosystem-sustaining menhaden (a fish species) along the eastern U.S. coast.
This capacity—this catalytic, leveraging, persistent role that foundations can play if they choose to do so—was to me a profound discovery early on in our grantmaking. It is a lesson, once learned, that is not forgotten.
What will you do today?
Exponent Philanthropy member Gerald (Jerry) McCarthy is a philanthropic and nonprofit advisor at Gerald P. McCarthy LLC. He previously served as founding executive director of Virginia Environmental Endowment (VEE) for 36 years. VEE’s grantmaking focuses on environmental conservation through pollution prevention, conservation of natural resources, and environmental literacy.