R. Andrew Swinney, the president of The Philadelphia Foundation, a 96-year-old community foundation that awards $15-$20 million dollars annually and manages 800 charitable funds — including Benjamin Franklin’s — has ideas about how to improve the nonprofit sector.
A veteran of the hotel industry who is driven by service, Swinney personally signs every grant check issued by the Foundation — over 1,000 each year — and is a champion for collaborations of all sizes. We sat down with him to talk about common problems, possible solutions, and what it means to make a collective impact.
What do you think could improve the nonprofit sector?
Nonprofits could be run more like businesses, and focus more on delivering on their operating budgets. Too many people are passionate about whatever it is they do and forget the simple business of it.
Around the 1920s, a couple of years after we were born, the nonprofit sector used to be charities, which were important, but not essential. Today the sector is the very backbone of the community. Maybe there are too many nonprofits, or maybe not, but they have become the backbone.
The nonprofit community is talking about impact. Can you describe the difference between a direct vs. collective approach?
I think direct impact is a specific organization doing a specific thing — and we can’t afford to have people doing their own thing. Collective impact is coming together to improve the quality of life for all in our communities.
We need to have some form of collective approach — the rising of all boats. The corporate sector is making megabucks, and yet we have high unemployment, high poverty, and high dropout rates. We need the sectors to come together, and the community as a whole, to make a collective impact.
How is The Philadelphia Foundation contributing to this approach, and what is your priority?
We were formed to build philanthropic resources, and manage them well, to improve the quality of life for people in the five-county region.
Number one is that our discretionary dollars are spent on trying to strengthen the nonprofit sector. It’s essential. There are too many nonprofits afraid to work together, because it’s all about the money.
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Too many of them are trying to survive on their own, as opposed to looking around and saying, ‘I’m in a similar situation providing similar services, is it worthwhile talking to [other] people to see if there’s synergy?’
Collective impact is not about changing the mission or the programs and services, but looking at the business side and saying, ‘How do you make it more cost-effective?’ Shared space and cloud computing, as well as strategic planning, allow for nonprofits to be more efficient.
What advice do you have for nonprofits?
Number one is that they should talk to each other and grow trust. No one is going to do business unless they trust each other.
In the nonprofit sector, trust is a bigger factor than anything else, because trust is about providing good services to people who are down and out. So, if nonprofits could talk to each other to build or bring trust into the equation, then anything is possible.
The Foundation can pay for the consultant to figure out how they want to come together, and is working with others foundations to consider developing a collective pool of resources for these strategic partnerships.
The Philadelphia Foundation is among a handful of foundations giving large operating grants. How does that contribute to the strength of the sector?
We give general operating grants because we believe that, too often, organizations don’t have unrestricted money. Here’s an example — there was a program for young people in the basement of the church, and the roof started to leak. Even though they had enough program support, they couldn’t use the money for fixing the roof, so the program couldn’t run.
What is your leadership style?
My leadership style is supportive for those who have been hired to do their jobs. I’m not one of those who is upfront and in your face. To some extent, it comes from my experience in the hotel business. The whole point of it is, we’re here to serve people, so I consider the foundation a service business. We are trying to improve the quality of life for everyone — whether that’s for the donor, the grantee, or the community — our goal is to provide the necessary services to deliver on what they need.
What keeps you up at night?
I think my biggest concern, and what keeps me up, is that there is a growing number of young people dropping out of school. They are unemployable, unemployed, and have no skill set whatsoever. It’s a growing mass of people who are sooner or later going to get angry, so then what happens?
Do you think a lack of education is our biggest problem?
I think a lack of sensitivity to those less fortunate is. Education is part of it — but only part of it — because if I’m living in a broken-down house, living in a neighborhood that is violent, how do I get to school safely? It’s too easy to say education, because if I’m hungry, how am I going to study?
The Philadelphia Foundation is invested in projects to change the “status quo.” Please explain.
The “status quo” is actually about our discretionary dollars and refers to strengthening the nonprofit sector to do its work even better. It includes strategic plans, financial management, cloud computing, strategic partnerships, possibly leading to mergers and consolidations, centralized purchasing, shared office space, etc. In this way we can change the very backbone of the community – the nonprofits – that make us a community. We will do a better job of improving the lives of those less fortunate.-30-
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