In October 2009, the Surdna Foundation announced new programs to support its mission to help create just and sustainable communities: sustainable environments, thriving cultures, and strong local economies. To help inform its grantmaking to build strong local economies, the Foundation commissioned Mt. Auburn Associates to prepare a white paper on the current structure and challenges of the nation’s workforce and economic development systems. This paper was originally presented as part of a November 9th- 10th, 2009 Board of Trustees meeting.
By Phillip Henderson
Some years ago, I picked up the book The Reluctant Metropolis, by William Fulton. Fulton describes in this very engaging history the way politics and power dynamics shaped the modern era of the Los Angeles megalopolis. I grew up just down the road from downtown LA, in what was once the fruit trees and farmland of Orange County. I had often read about how metropolitan LA had sprung up over the course of the twentieth century. But as a person who arrived as a youth in the late 1970s, LA had always seemed a fully formed place, traffic, pollution, movie stars and all. What Fulton's book made me realize for the first time was that LA, and in a larger sense the world, was being shaped right under my nose. In fact, LA hadn't been the static, fully formed place that I'd experienced in my youth. Many of the key factors that embody the current version of LA, from water policies, to demography, to tax and education policy, were slowly and imperceptibly (to me) being shaped and developed during that time.
By the time I picked up Fulton's book I had lived and worked for many years in Eastern Europe, arriving just a couple years after the fall of communism, so I'm not naïve about the pace of historical change or the possibility of deep upheaval in a society. But I had never really considered that this was just as true in a place like Los Angeles or Chicago or Des Moines as it is in Bucharest or Berlin. What had once seemed like a mature, solid, unchangeable country now seemed fluid, evolving. Fulton had opened my eyes to the change that is happening everywhere.
Fast forward a few years to my time at the Surdna Foundation. This is a foundation that has, for the last 20 years, taken on big social problems. These are problems that no single foundation, certainly not one of the modest size of the Surdna Foundation, can solve on its own. These are problems like climate change, transportation systems, structural racism that are many years, decades, generations in the making and require the concerted effort of dozens of foundations, governments, private companies, individuals, and movements to solve.
In my "pre Fulton" days, I would have perceived these problems as fixed, as a given, immovable and unchangeable realities of the society in which we live. I would have thought that while change is possible around the edges of these problems - a new road here, a better rail line there - what we have is what we've got and that the core issues remain constant. But in my "post Fulton" mind, I see things much differently. I see now that the world we live in has been created slowly, one decision and one event at a time. The shape of our cities, the way we live, the way we think about our neighbors is constantly evolving. So we shouldn't be overwhelmed by the immensity of the kind of change we might need - a smaller carbon footprint for our cities, more holistic educational experiences for our kids, a deeper level of integration among Americans of all racial, economic, and social backgrounds. We should not seek to change things all at once or overnight. Complex societies can and do change, but they change one decision at a time, one building block after another. When viewed that way, I see the role of the Surdna Foundation more clearly. We are right to focus on big problems. We can and should seek to ensure that the next decision about how our cities grow is a good one, followed by another good decision, followed by another and another. Incrementally, over the next 5, 10, 20 years ensure that the incremental changes are in the right direction, following the best advice, the most advanced thinking. Little by little, decision by decision, society is changing and we can help ensure that it changes for the better.
Foundations have the advantage of taking the long view. Surdna Foundation has been around for 92 years and we expect to be around another 92 years. That long term perspective allows us, no, it obliges us, to tackle the big dilemmas our society faces.
The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) and Ellen B. Rudolph, Surdna Foundation program director for Thriving Cultures, received the Institutional Research Initiative Award from the Arts Schools Network at its recent annual conference in Washington, D.C.
Based at the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, SNAAP is an annual online survey, data management and institutional improvement system designed to enhance the impact of arts-school education.
Surdna's Chief Financial Officer, Marc de Venoge, was interviewed by Investment Consultant Cambridge Associates in its most recent client newsletter, C|A Perspectives. In the interview Marc discusses Surdna's history and investment strategy. To read the interview, Click Here.
Surdna Foundation enthusiastically reports that its Chairman Emeritus, John E. Andrus, III, grandson of the founder, celebrated his centennial birthday on September 19, 2009. Exactly 100 years to the day after his birth, John marked the occasion with family and close friends at the Woodhill Country Club, near his home on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota arranged by his 3 daughters. What makes this milestone especially rewarding for us all is that John remains an active individual, still engaged in the interests and pursuits of his life. John remains in vigorous good health and continues to participate in family and foundation endeavors, as well as his love of nature and art.
The centennial evening celebration included a dance performance and songs by his daughters with numerous touching and personal tributes from his 6 grandchildren and numerous friends and relatives. Each tribute was a demonstration of affection and admiration, and acknowledgement of a man who lives an exemplary life with compassion and caring enough to touch the hearts and minds of so many. After blowing out the 3 digit candle of a centenarian, John, the always gracious and poised gentlemen thanked the assembled group and acknowledged his gratitude for the wonderful tributes and for attending his party.
John's grandfather was the founder of the Surdna Foundation in 1917. But it is the grandson that the Foundation credits for the modern, professionalized Surdna Foundation beginning in the late 1980's. A successful business man in his own regard, John conceived the idea of focusing the grant making power of the foundation into specific and targeted areas guided by a professional staff, and insisted on regular reviews of grants and grantee progress. In 1989 the foundation hired its first Executive Director who worked with the board to devise an effective and collaborative grant program. John is also credited with recruiting some very talented family members to be board members including a financial executive who served as Treasurer that set into motion the investment portfolio discipline and operational backbone that has held Surdna up so well over the years.
John Andrus, III grew up in Minneaplis, Minnesota. He served proudly in the US Army and was a 1933 graduate of Wesleyan University. After majoring in English and English Literature at Wesleyan, John went on to the Minnesota School of Law. Along side a successful life in business heading up the metal fabricator Deep Draw Corporation, John also led a long and involved career in philanthropy. In addition to his dedication to the Surdna Foundation, John served as chairman of the board of the Nature Conservancy, chairman of the board of the Minnesota Institute of Art and was involved in numerous other nonprofit organizations. John joined the Surdna board in the 1969 and established himself as a voice of wisdom and reason. He served Chair for many years and reached emeritus status in 1991.
So on the occasion of John's 100th birthday, we all sincerely wish John many more years of productive philanthropy and quality living.
After more than a decade as director of Surdna’s Nonprofit Sector Program, Vince Stehle has left the Foundation to seek new challenges. Vince was instrumental in shaping the program and is widely respected in the field.
The Nonprofit Sector Program has been closely associated with the field of nonprofit infrastructure and the early support of organizations that have transformed the practice of philanthropy. But there have also been more specific areas of work where the program has had a significant impact. Among the most notable areas of focus, Surdna’s support for nonprofit technology is probably the sector where we have had the most profound impact.
The Program has also had a major impact on the field of media and communications, where we have more recently joined a large and growing group of grantmakers concerned about the value of media in amplifying the work of all nonprofits and causes.
Vince was a hands-on program director, serving as Chairperson of Philanthropy New York formerly the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers (NYRAG), and serving on the governing boards of YouthNoise, VolunteerMatch and the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN). He continues to serve on the board of Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media and he remains a tireless advocate for our grantees and the field of philanthropy in general. We wish him great things in his future endeavors.
September to approve 87 grants totaling $10,141,000.
Center For Effective Philanthropy: Grantee Perception Report
The relationship between nonprofit organizations and the foundations that fund them is not always smooth and mutually beneficial.
We need to continuously learn and collaborate, to mirror the complexity of the real world. We also need to develop comprehensive, wise solutions to the problems we are jointly tackling.
Surdna has spent the past year reviewing our goals and strategies to get clearer about how we can gauge our success and that of our grantees. To help inform our review, we contracted with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to survey our grantees on their perceptions of our foundation. CEP has conducted such surveys since 2003 with a two-fold purpose: to gather data that is useful on a field-wide basis, and to provide individual foundations with reports on how they are perceived by their grantees.
Surdna was part of a cohort of 29 foundations. We asked CEP to survey our grantees, examine how we are viewed relative to other funders who participated in the survey, and report back their findings to our board and staff in a Grantee Perception Report. The Report is based on a comprehensive survey of grantees' perspectives on our performance across several key areas including process, communications and impact. The major findings of the Report can be downloaded below. We encourage you to read it.
We plan to change some of our current practices in response to what we've learned. An outline of key areas and our response follows.
Grantee Satisfaction and Interactions
Surdna is more highly regarded by its grantees across important broad dimensions such as satisfaction and quality of interactions than most other foundations. Surdna is also valued by grantees for its substantial field-related contributions, and is one of the highest-rated foundations in this survey round on dimensions such as understanding its fields of funding, advancing knowledge in those fields, and influencing public policy. All of these findings speak to the perceived high quality of Surdna staff, valued for their professionalism, knowledge, and contributions to their fields and grantees. Here we will try to continuously improve.
Communication of Goals and Strategy
Although Surdna is rated about average in clarity of communication of goals and strategy, grantees comment that their understanding came through personal interactions with program staff. Written communications and our Website were less helpful. In fact, Surdna's written communications - published guidelines, Website and annual report - are just below the overall foundation average in terms of helpfulness. Surdna staff apparently make up for that with individual communication, and they spend more time at it than their peers at other foundations.
The central issue is effective communication. We will conduct an internal review of our communications strategy and tools over the coming months.
Assistance Beyond the Grant Check
The survey found that Surdna provides only an average level of assistance beyond the grant check directly to grantees, mostly in the form of advice on grantees' fields and active assistance in securing funding. Much of that assistance is provided directly by staff, rather than third parties or intermediaries (which are more commonly used by other foundations).
We were surprised by this finding - working "beyond the money" has been one approach Surdna has been very proud of. Staff conversations strongly suggest that, given our average high grant load, not all of our grantees are worked with intensively and this may be reflected in the voting. We suspect this is natural, but over the coming year will take a serious look at our own activities to see how we can push the needle toward better service for more grantees.
Grantees view Surdna as slightly below average when it comes to the helpfulness of our reporting and feedback process. In October, 2004, we launched a streamlined application process, and added clearer success measures questions to our proposal process. This will enable us to more effectively monitor progress, deliver resources and share what we learn with our grantees and others. This new process is part of a larger success measures framework we developed over the course of the last year. We will monitor the process and course-correct as needed in the months ahead.
At Surdna, we enjoy collaborating with our grantees and seek to work with them, as well as other funders, in supportive and collegial relationships. We are committed:
Additional information about the Center for Effective Philanthropy may be found at www.effectivephilanthropy.org. Of particular note is their report, Listening to Grantees: What Nonprofits Value in Their Foundation Funders, available at www.effectivephilanthropy.org/publications/publications_overview.html.
Download Related Document(s): CEP Report
Fostering sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.