Do Foundations Have Bad Habits?

James Canales, CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, has an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on the bad habits of foundations (subscription required).

He cautions against “the occupational hazards of insularity, complacency, and arrogance,” noting that the best antidote “is to remain vigilant about how our behavior can be read and might even be misread. One cannot overstate the power of humility in this regard.”

I’ve often heard about these bad habits during my time in foundation work and afterward.  My mentors and the classic book Grantmaking Basics: A Field Guide for Funders (now an online resource) kept me aware of the problems in my early years as a foundation staffer.

I agree that these are bad habits.  What I don’t necessarily agree with is the perceived scale of the problem.  I’ve met far more grantmaking staff and donors who are truly conscientious about their work and humble in their interactions with nonprofits and communities.  

I’ve more often encountered an unintentional lack of clarity on how their foundations describe their hopes and priorities.  Sometimes this must appear to be insularity or arrogance to the community. 

It certainly isn’t necessary for grantmakers to create complex theories of change or prescriptive guidelines.  But I have seen that it is incredibly helpful to nonprofits (and the foundation staff and board members) when a grantmaker asks and publicly answers tough questions about what works and doesn’t work, at least in its view of the world.

Perhaps I’m just hoping for better understanding and patience from both grantmakers and nonprofits.  The process of clarifying philanthropic goals takes time, is always evolutionary, and sometimes messy.  But, in the best of worlds, it is a process that continually invites honest feedback from community stakeholders.

What do you think?  Are the bad habits more prevalent than I think?