Ever heard of Good White Sharks swimming at the Good Barrier Reef?

Neither had we. For these things are great! Which got a small group of us thinking: what makes something great, rather than good, and how is it possible to make that leap? More relevantly, we wanted to explore how European foundations can position themselves in ways that make greatness possible.

At the 2013 European Foundation Centre conference, we developed a session, From Good to Great Philanthropy, to tackle this question. To get into the topic, we wanted to start the session based on what EFC members already understood to be greatness. So, Selim Iltus, also of the Bernard van Leer Foundation, and I, conducted a survey of 80 foundations.  Questions were based on an extensive literature review on “what makes organizations great” conducted by Bettina Windau from the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

The answer, we found, is that there is no simple answer, because foundations pursue greatness in different ways. Indeed, using a statistical technique called factor analysis, we found seven archetypes of greatness that foundations aspire to, which can be broken down as follows:

  1. Passionate rationalists: These foundations use a first-class theory of change. They are dedicated in what they do and always measure their impact. They are also good organisers, valuing collective impact with collaborating agencies. They are good at leveraging resources and when necessary, find new ways of tackling old problems.
  2. Flexible risk-takers: These foundations are always optimistic and hopeful about their results. They like to take risks and have a flexible approach.  If things do not go well, they change course and explore new options.
  3. People-centred: For these organisations, it is all about people. This means the right leadership, good people in right positions and the right allies. They also have a strong understanding of the political context.
  4. Short-term pragmatists: They value short-term gains. They also aspire for spectacular outcomes.  They do not always plan in detail but they always have clear short-term plans on how to proceed and achieve results.
  5. Focused professionals: These foundations have highly focused programmes.  They concentrate on a few areas and have clear objectives. They clearly define their role from the beginning and stick to it.  They also stick with their grantees and make long-term commitments.
  6. Happy-go-lucky: These foundations believe in luck and not necessarily in careful planning. They also go after simple ideas. They believe any project can turn out to be a success or failure.
  7. Big investors: These believe that for foundations to be successful, they need lots of money and make big investments. They select their grantees very carefully, because they also think that the right grantee is the key. They tend to avoid social justice investments. These results suggest that there are a variety of ways that foundations aspire to greatness. 

It logically follows that there is not a single blueprint for a foundation.  Moreover, since there are a variety of forms of greatness, there needs to be a variety of forms of evaluation, risk assessment, and other management techniques. If Bettina’s background work taught us anything, it is to beware of management books that promote a single simple answer. Complexity rules!