Is There an Ideal Career Path To Working at a Small Foundation? - Exponent Philanthropy
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Is There an Ideal Career Path To Working at a Small Foundation?

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There is no one path to having a career in leanly staffed foundations, as they operate in almost every locale in the nation. Still, there are qualities, skills and experiences that prepare people to effectively manage small foundation operations, engage boards, and leverage resources for impact.

Patterns in Hiring

First, let’s look at some career experiences lean funders’ favor in hiring. Over the years, I have interviewed hundreds of Exponent Philanthropy staff, board members and donors. I ask each person what they did before coming to the foundation.

Our members hire professionals from an array of fields, including teachers, social workers, journalists, community organizers, corporate executives, university administrators, and many others. The most common backgrounds include:

1. Experience working for the foundation’s grantee partners

Some funders hire talented staff from the organizations they support. Many of these foundations focus on a specific field or issue, and want to benefit from the experience and skills of staff working in that field.

2. Experience working at places that have a broad perspective of the community

Most Exponent members are place-based funders who want to make an impact in their city, town, or state. Some value hiring those with experience and strong relationships in the community. These people come from organizations such as United Ways, community development corporations, community foundations, and nonprofit support centers. Consider, a foundation executive director who published the region’s local newspaper said he was hired, in part, for his knowledge of local organizations and issues.

3. Skills relevant to the foundation’s particular focus area or specialty

I have many examples, but here’s a sample:

  • One small staffed foundation hired an individual who spent years as a nonprofit capacity builder to build the internal capacity of its grantee partners.
  • Another foundation hired a state government analyst who evaluated the impact and cost effectiveness of state programs, to manage and lead the foundation’s advocacy initiatives.
  • A leanly staffed foundation hired an executive director who founded a successful youth development program to manage its signature initiative in that field.
  • And another foundation recruited the host of a regional TV news program to serve as executive director. This was, in part, to facilitate relationships and partnerships with many kinds of organizations.

Seeking Flexibility and Versatility

Next, let’s think about the nature of lean foundations. What qualities and skills does the work demand?

Exponent Philanthropy members that employ staff typically employ one to five (the median at two). They juggle multiple responsibilities. The executive director manages grantmaking, board relations, public relations, investment oversight, and operations. Should the foundation employ an administration or finance director, that person has some responsibility for the grants process and other tasks, like building and maintaining the website.

It’s important that staff be able to learn quickly. At times, community and grantee needs require embracing new types of work, such as convening, commissioning research, collaboration, funding capacity building, or making program related investments (PRIs). Foundations rely on staff to do the necessary research, interview experts and peers, and map out options.

Those who enjoy variety, a dynamic environment, and new challenges flourish at leanly staffed foundations.

The Foundation Staff Role Is Changing

Our research into leadership and catalytic philanthropy shows that staff who make a deep and lasting impact are playing a different role than what philanthropy courses traditionally teach and boards value.

Some Exponent members are removing barriers that isolated them from the community. They’re diversifying how they learn, and relying less on paper proposals and formal grant reports. These funders engage directly with grantee partners to nurture relationships, learn about unmet needs and opportunities, and respond with support. More and more, they invite conversations, center curiosity, educate themselves, and venture beyond their usual circles to support grassroots groups, organizations led by people of color, and social and environmental entrepreneurs.

Lean funders are finding new opportunities by centering engagement and learning. The journey leads some to engage community members in foundation decision-making, and advance equity more intentionally. Others venture into new territories, such as commissioning research, convening partners, catalyzing coalitions, building capacity in organizations, coalitions, and movements, making seed grants, speaking out on issues, and engaging in advocacy.

Valued Qualities and Skills in This New Philanthropy

As they transform their work, lean foundations depend on staff inquisitiveness, or a willingness to inquire, explore and “Look under rocks,” as one executive director put it. Similarly, foundations rely on staff having these qualities and skills as well:

  • Being able to ask probing questions that help people articulate their goals and aspirations, and move toward new discoveries and solutions
  • Being able to develop learning journeys for foundation boards and family members. Activities include inviting community leaders and experts to give presentations, planning visits and tours, designing trainings, and curating readings, films, and podcasts
  • Being able to engage people, invite conversation, and put them at ease
  • Being able to synthesize information, data and knowledge, to present concisely and effectively in varied ways
  • Coaching skills to help board members, grantee partners, and community members discover ways to access their resourcefulness and creativity, and move beyond obstacles
  • Deep listening skills
  • Experience mapping community assets
  • Experience mapping the system of an issue
  • Humility, or an awareness that ideas and solutions reside in partners and the community
  • Skills to facilitate generative conversations among board and family, and grantee partners and community members, to build relationships and nurture collective learning
  • Skills in convening stakeholders
  • Translation skills to help nonprofits express their work and ideas in ways that will resonate with a board or family

Exponent Philanthropy helps lean funders nurture and hone these human-centered roles and skills. Through training and peer learning communities, we’re accelerating transformation in philanthropic work. Join us for future Catalytic Leadership Academy programs.

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About the Author

Andy Carroll advises staff, trustees, and donors of leanly staffed foundations in leadership, advocacy, and catalytic philanthropy. He works to empower more small foundations to leverage their unique position and assets to catalyze change on important issues. Andy has an MBA from the University of Michigan Business School and 30 years of experience in management, training, and program development for nonprofit organizations. Follow him on Twitter @andycarrollexpo, and check out his Catalytic Philanthropy Podcast.


  1. Rob DiLeonardi

    Just had to take time out to compliment this wonderful piece.

    I am ED of a leanly staffed foundation, and I can’t count how many times over the years people have posed this exact question to me! Now, in addition to my own impressions, I have this thoughtful and thorough piece to point them to.

    In addition, last fall I filled a newly created program officer position at our foundation, and I was amazed at the variety of backgrounds of some of the applicants. This article tells me that my experience was not unusual, and also reassures me that I was not crazy to consider some of the more nontraditional candidates.

    Andy, I appreciate your sharing the valuable experiences you’ve had over the years on this topic, and creating this great reference point both for people interested in working at a smaller foundation, and those hiring them.

    This is a wonderful example of the kind of information one would only find at Exponent Philanthropy, and a reminder of EP’s unique value to those of us working at foundations with smaller staffs. Thank you.

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