There was a time not so long ago that nearly all philanthropists, as well as many others, carried a mechanical watch. Prior to cell phones, digital watches, and electrical quartz watches, the mechanical watch was a true marvel—a complex assembly of springs, gears, jewels, pins, and other components.
Winding a watch transmits energy into a spring. Interlocking gears transfer that energy to a special set of levers, wheels, and springs that modulate its distribution such that the gears move in a very precise way. The hands attached to the gears sit on the face of the watch, and their movement represents, very precisely, a second, a minute, and an hour.
The mechanical watch is an amazing system of interacting parts working together to do the almost unthinkable: transforming energy into time-telling.
The foundation as watch
The private foundation is much like a mechanical watch. But rather than converting energy into time-telling, it transforms passion into impact.
The foundation’s main spring holds the passion generated by its board and staff. We wind the foundation machine by discerning a mission and growing our commitment to achieving it. We wind it by understanding who we are and what we want to be as well as defining our obligation to society, to one another, and to those we intend to aid.
The passionless foundation is occasionally helpful, but most times it will fail to put into motion the actions that are needed for impact.
Passion flows from the foundation’s spring through its various human gears: our trustees and their capabilities and guidance; our staff and its knowledge and insights; and our grantees and their actions we enable. These interlocking components work together to form a single transmission assembly.
When the gears aren’t coordinated, the foundation stops making sense. These gears carry the foundation’s visible elements, the hands that are looked to by society for evidence of insight and impact. When they don’t work as one, the foundation may appear fast, or slow, but hardly accurate.
Balancing and regulating what passes through the foundation’s gears is a system of strategies and plans. A culture supporting iterative improvement is the fine lubricant that ensures its smooth operation. Absent this system of control, the gears may spin wildly with the release of great passion. But little of it will be converted to impact.
Philanthropy like clockwork
My foundation experience has included times when passion ran high and other eras of the slow-beating heart. The more we were aligned around a clear understanding of our grantmaking goals and all were energized about them, the more fervor we had to achieve great things.
So take time to wind your watch. Walk with the beneficiaries of your work. See the kind of change you might catalyze. Identify the outcomes that will generate zeal in your board and staff as a unit—not individually because a great foundation is not a mere collection of several personal interests. Build an even deeper commitment to your intended outcomes through robust dialogue about the precise impact you want to achieve.
I’ve also worked in times when our philanthropic gears were synchronized and in other times when they seemed to be jammed. When there was clarity about how we intended change to happen, when our plans were well informed by experienced grantees and our own applied wisdom, only then were we most effective.
So also take time to oil your gears. Plan to leverage what you know well. Revise your plans based on what you learn from your grantees. Share with all the people who make your philanthropic machine turn.
Now is the time
There have been many varieties of mechanical watches. Different styles and colors. Different quality and performance. Some lasted for years whereas others broke down quickly. Much like a person can choose a watch with different springs and gears, a foundation can select its people and its practices.
Excellence in watchmaking involves the precise creation of a finely tuned system. Excellence in grantmaking demands a similar attention to getting the small things right and making sure the proper connections are where they need to be.
Clark McCain is senior program officer at The Coleman Foundation, Inc., a private, independent grantmaker in Chicago, IL.