In Defense Of Unstrategic Philanthropy

Editors’ Note: Gara LaMarche reflects on lessons learned from leadership positions at two of the nation’s largest foundations, Open Society Foundations and the recently sunset Atlantic Philanthropies.

I’ve been helping foundations and rich individuals redistribute their wealth to non-profits and social movements for nearly twenty-five years, and almost all of that time there has been a growing movement – not to mention a cottage industry of consultants around it – to sharpen strategic focus. I’ve been through multiple rounds of strategic planning in every organization I’ve led, and it’s often been useful. It’s hard to lead an effective institution of any kind if you are not clear about what you are trying to accomplish, whether there is a realistic path to achieving it, and how you are going to measure your progress.

And yet, as I look back on my own career, I’d say that many of the grants I am proudest of – those that in most cases had a significant, even transformational impact – did not grow out of any formal strategy, and were in a few cases pretty serendipitous or in any event nearly spontaneous. And so I thought a look back at a few of them might spotlight some lessons useful for others in the field of philanthropy or studying it.

I went to work for George Soros as the founding director of his Open Society Institute’s (now the Open Society Foundations) U.S. Programs in 1996. In the months before I was hired, Soros laid out some areas in which he wanted to work, where he felt the United States fell short of what he called, after Karl Popper, open society principles. In those days, before the civil liberties assaults which followed the September 11 attacks, Soros viewed the U.S  as having a basic respect for human rights and democratic norms, so these areas of emphasis for his new U.S. philanthropy fell generally into what we’d call inequality and failures of the marketplace to protect professional values and ethics in law, medicine and journalism.

I set out to pull these issue areas, which included criminal justice, drug policy, reproductive rights, money in politics and a few other things, into a white paper that would form the basis of our work going forward. Soros, along with the president of the foundation, Aryeh Neier, had an aversion to strategic planning processes and the consultants that usually go along with them, so we did this all in-house, based on things I wrote after wide consultation within the foundation and with some outside sources.


We had been a few months on this course when Soros called Neier and me aside after a weekend retreat at his home in Bedford, New York to tell us he was very concerned about the rights of immigrants. In the summer of 1996, President Clinton, under pressure from the Gingrich congress that came into power in early 1995, had signed a welfare reform bill, and among its harsher provisions was the termination of social safety net benefits for non-citizens – not what we would today call the undocumented, but green card holders. Soros had read about it, and as an immigrant himself – he had been powerfully influenced as a young man by his experience in Britain, when he broke his leg and was covered by the newly established National Health Service – he was outraged by the scapegoating of hardworking legal immigrants.

He told Neier and me that he wanted to set up a fund of fifty million dollars to blunt the impact of the new law. I was pretty new at philanthropy, and that seemed like an awful lot of money to me. Not only did we not have a plan for it, we had never previously considered immigration as a focus area for the new U.S. Programs. Nevertheless, since Neier and I, with backgrounds in the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, shared with Soros an activist orientation and a distaste for bureaucracy, I set about trying to implement Soros’s vision. With the help of a young aide who was taking minutes at the retreat – Rosa Brooks, now a Georgetown Law professor and former Defense Department official – we even named the fund on the spot after Emma Lazarus.

In three weeks we had hired a director for the Emma Lazarus Fund and announced it at a National Press Club event. It would mainly focus on the delivery of services to help non-citizens with things like language classes and legal assistance, but about a fifth of the fund focused on advocacy to change the law. With the assistance of an expert advisory committee of immigration advocates, we spent the money over a few years, in the process becoming the largest funder of immigrant rights work. In time the law was repealed and virtually all of the benefits restored, a pretty good return on our investment. None of it was planned in advance.


While Soros had contemplated fellowships for writers and scholars, which we turned into a broad Open Society Fellows program to generate new ideas and critical thinking in the first years of our U.S. work, we hadn’t planned to have fellowships for activists and organization builders. But through the Robin Hood Foundation in New York, Soros met Geoff Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and around the same time met Bill Strickland, of the Manchester Bidwell Corporation in Pittsburgh. Soros was so inspired by their bootstrap life stories, and the work they did with young people in their communities, that he asked us to develop a “community fellowship” in New York and Baltimore, for social entrepreneurs who had a vision for improving lives in the communities where they grew up and continued to live. The New York version of this program ran for a number of years and provided start-up support for Make the Road by Walking, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and the New York Taxi Drivers Alliance, among many other social justice organizations, and the Baltimore program, hundreds of fellows later, is still going.

You might say that these inspired ventures are the hallmarks of an unusually visionary and creative living donor, and of course they were. But there were a number of other things we did outside the box at Open Society in those years that sprung from notions of staff, or from those outside the foundation.


While the Emma Lazarus Fund was the biggest initiative we sponsored in the early years of the U.S. Programs, it was not unusual in falling outside our usual processes, which on any given day looked like those of most grantmaking institutions. One thing we did, as we were finding our way toward a program, was to look for big bets that would signal our values, telegraph our style and approach, and help us learn. The most prominent of these was a sizable grant to the Algebra Project, founded by civil rights icon Robert Moses.

I read about the Algebra Project in the Nation magazine early in my tenure and sent a clip of the article to Aryeh Neier suggesting we consider it for support. I knew that Open Society supported a large math and science initiative in South Africa, and since we had notions of attempting to deal with education inequity in the United States (but were not bowled over by most of what we saw happening philanthropically in that very crowded realm), the Algebra Project seemed like a good fit with our emerging values. It was community-grounded, focused on Black kids in the deep South, and informed by an organizing ethos forged in the crucible of 1960s civil rights activism.

We invited Moses and his colleagues in for a few conversations, asked them what they would need to take the Algebra Project to the next level, and soon settled on a three-year grant of $12 million. While I drew on the talents of a few staff members I’d hired in the early months of the U.S. Programs, several of whom had some experience in education funding, we didn’t really have a dedicated program officer for this sizable commitment. Instead, with the agreement of The Algebra Project, we convened an expert committee to meet from time to time with the grantee and us to check in on how the expanded investment was going.


The most personal grant I made in my early tenure at Open Society grew out of my own high school experience, one I shared with Aryeh Neier. Neier and I were having lunch shortly before I took up my post at Open Society and I had been studying the foundation’s work in Eastern Europe, where Soros had established a network of foundations in his native region, attempting to support core institutions of civil society such as independent media, arts, journalism and education after decades of Communist rule.

I had been a debater at my Catholic high school in New England and knew that Neier, some years before me, had been a debater at Stuyvesant High School in New York. I was impressed with what I read about the debate clubs set up by Soros in Eastern Europe, which served the purpose of legitimizing argument and dissent after years of state suppression. I wondered aloud to Neier about the state of high school debate in the United States, particularly in the marginalized communities we sought to support. He agreed it was worthy of exploration, and I asked a Soros staffer who had worked with the global debate program to look into it for me and make a report.

She came back a while later and told me what I had suspected, which was that the state of competitive debate in inner-city high schools – like the state of virtually all extracurricular activities – was anemic or non-existent. But there were a few pockets of excellence, and a terrific program at Emory University in Atlanta was a hub for support of them that could easily be expanded to serve more communities. We made a significant grant to Emory and established a number of Urban Debate Leagues in major American cities, including New York and Baltimore.

Knowing how important debate had been for me in getting me comfortable with public speaking and opening up other academic and career horizons, I was as gratified by the growth of the urban debate network as anything I’ve been associated with. Two particularly poignant moments stand out. In the first, I was visiting a Bronx high school as “principal for a day” and the rightful principal organized a breakfast for me with promising students. One young Latina woman was involved in a debate club funded by a Soros grant and had just returned from a trip to DC where she met Ruth Bader Ginsburg and declared her intent to succeed her on the Supreme Court one day. She told me that her first trip away from home, the previous summer, had been to debate camp at the University of Vermont. That experience, over thirty years earlier, had also been my first trip away from home. The second moment, some years after I left Open Society, was when I saw a picture of the national debate champions in the White House with President Obama, and the winners were from a school where the debate program had been made possible by our grant.

We were happy to provide seed funding for these city leagues, but after a few years required local matches from businesses, law firms and foundations. Virtually all the leagues became self-sustaining and no longer receive Open Society support.


Early in my tenure as U.S. Programs director I wanted to learn more about grassroots organizing, which I’d had no direct experience with, having worked in national and global policy groups like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. A colleague and friend from an organization whose board I served on told me she was a board member of the Jewish Funds for Justice (which in recent years changed its name to Bend the Arc), which raised money from individual, primarily Jewish donors, to make local grants to social justice organizing groups, most of which were run by people of color. I wanted to learn more and invited her to bring the director of the group to the Open Society office for a meeting, but I was careful to warn that this was not to be a pitch for the Jewish Funds for Justice, but part of my learning process about community organizing.

My friend agreed, and she and the director came for the meeting and impressed me greatly with the sophistication of their strategy and even more with the boldness and effectiveness of the groups they were supporting in the field. When the meeting was nearing its end, my friend, abandoning our prior agreement, cleared her throat and asked us for a million dollars. I smiled and said, “Nice try, but no,” and sent them on their way. But after they’d gone, I wondered to myself: “why not?” The Jewish Funds for Justice did a great job of identifying visionary, high-performing groups, and a large grant to them would get the money to the field, help us learn a lot about grassroots organizing, and save us the trouble of building our own due diligence capacity for local grantmaking. I consulted a few colleagues and George Soros, and they had a similarly positive reaction, so I called them back and offered support of $3 million over three years.

Other grants we made at Open Society, large and small, grew out of compelling cases made by people who managed to get an appointment with me (which wasn’t that hard, as to the consternation of my staff I tried to resist the tendency of many foundation leaders to build layers between them and those on the ground). Tim Sweeney, an LGBT rights leader I’d come to know when we were both young staffers in the ACLU office in the late 1970’s, approached me to ask if I would meet with Evan Wolfson, a former LAMBDA Legal lawyer who had a plan for making gay marriage legal in the United States. I agreed to, though I was highly skeptical of what seemed a quixotic venture. But I was impressed with the careful and thoughtful plan Wolfson laid out in the meeting, and it didn’t seem farfetched that he could become the Thurgood Marshall of marriage equality. I introduced him to Aryeh Neier, who was even more skeptical at first. But as we both were won over, we made a grant to Freedom to Marry, Wolfson’s organization, and kept making them (at Atlantic Philanthropies, too, after I became its President in 2007). Ultimately, marriage equality as the law of the land came much earlier than any of us – with the exception, perhaps, of Wolfson — expected. We did this despite the lack of any formal LGBT program at Open Society and were one of the few non-LGBT foundations to provide consistent support for marriage equality.


Atlantic Philanthropies was a much more rigidly focused foundation when I took it over than the relatively free-wheeling world of Open Society, but I had a mandate from the Atlantic board to deepen our policy advocacy work, since our unusual tax status—the foundation was set up in Bermuda—gave us a lot of leeway to make grants to 501 (c) 4 activities that would not be possible for most foundations. But we had little flexibility, budget-wise, outside our four dedicated program areas, and to give us some room for boldness I reduced the program budgets – never a popular move in the ranks – and built up a sizable fund for new ventures.

One came along early in my time there when a small delegation of grassroots activists who I’d worked with in my Open Society days came to see me with a plea to consider support for a sizable advocacy campaign to build support for expanding the U.S. social safety net to include affordable health care, a goal that had eluded U.S. presidents for one hundred years, most recently in the failed health care initiative of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

I was intrigued, but Atlantic was not a leading U.S. health care policy funder, despite some work in our youth program on child health insurance. Universal health coverage was not one of our limited policy goals. On the other hand, Atlantic was spending down its assets in ten years, and I’d been encouraged to make big bets, since we wanted to leave a tangible legacy. What, after all, did we have a $4 billion endowment for? I seconded a staff member from our learning and evaluation unit who’d been in the Clinton White House and at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and we pulled together a small team of program staff, consulted with our board, and in a few months we made the first installment of what would become the largest advocacy grant ever made by a foundation — $26 million to a coalition of organizing, labor, health, civil rights, religious and other groups called Health Care for America Now (HCAN). Another $20 million was raised from other funders, including the Open Society Foundations, the California Endowment, and the Service Employees International Union.

There were many points along the path of that grant over two years where the Atlantic board and staff feared that our huge bet would come to nothing, but with the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 we felt it had been worth it. We also appreciated that we needed to stay involved because from the minute the law was enacted through the present day, it’s been the target of relentless attacks. Yet it survives, largely intact, and many millions of people have insurance because of it.

Despite the seemingly ad hoc decision process for the grants I’ve described above, we were not casual about assessing the impact of our investments, either during the commitments or after they were concluded. In addition to expert committees to help guide the Emma Lazarus Fund and Algebra Project grants and the inter-staff working group on health care at Atlantic, we commissioned independent evaluations of most of the immigration, debate and health care grants and shared the results with the field.


I’ve kept these reflections to matters in which I was personally involved in my stints at two of the world’s largest foundations, but I’m aware of recent successful philanthropic serendipity even at highly focused institutions like Ford, which helped organize a group of other funders to purchase Ebony’s invaluable photo archive at auction to make it accessible to the public, or JPB, which made a grant to the New York Public Library to enable it to forgive all the late fees accumulated over the years by young low-income borrowers.

Are there any lessons that can be learned from such reactive or seemingly impulsive philanthropy?  Trust your own instincts?  Well, yes, to an extent. The way I would put it is:  make sure you create a culture in a foundation where risk is expected and rewarded. Recognize that not all wisdom, not even most of it, resides in foundation staff and boards. Wisdom is mostly to be found out in the field, with organizations and movements who know what they are doing, whether it is helping immigrants to become citizens, poor kids to learn algebra or engage in competitive debate, charting a path to equality or moving lawmakers to feel the pressure to do something about a tenacious issue like health care.

At whatever scale you operate (for small grants can be catalytic, too, often more than the massive ones only large foundations can make), leave some flexibility for the unexpected and unanticipated. Any illusions we had about the essential safety of civil liberties and democratic norms in early 21st century America came to a crashing end with the attacks of September 11, 2001, and within weeks at Open Society we were the leading funder of South Asian and Muslim rights groups and think tanks and law firms focusing on privacy, free speech and national security.

Above all, recognize that whatever the value of strategic plans, what counts above all in philanthropy, as in life, are values. If those are clear, they will be a far better blueprint for action than any grant guidelines.

-Gara LaMarche