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These comments are responses to the Civic Caucus interview with

Richard McFarland, business executive and foundation board member
February 19, 2016

Foundations should get to root causes of civic problems, not just treat symptoms


Foundations should be doing more to get to the root causes of problems, rather than just treating the symptoms, says Richard McFarland, veteran member of several foundation boards in the Twin Cities. An interviewer restates the issue: whether foundations should be doing good directly, such as putting up a building for an organization, or doing good indirectly by supporting, in an ongoing way, institutions or organizations that would play a role over time in resolving community problems.

McFarland has served on the boards of the Dain, Graco, Minneapolis, McKnight and Bush foundations. In his experience, the Bush and Minneapolis foundations have usually focused on initiatives put forward by the staff, as opposed to the board looking outside the staff to get ideas on issues. But he stresses that every foundation is different. The McKnight Foundation is a family foundation, he notes, so the McKnight family sets its priorities. And the Dain Foundation was really run by the employees, since it funded organizations and causes in which employees were involved. He says the priorities of each big corporate foundation depend on the company's CEO and senior officers.

According to McFarland, foundations should evaluate the success of their initiatives against measurable goals. He gives examples of several foundation-funded projects, some of which failed to succeed and some where the jury is still out. In one case, he faults the funding foundation for not reporting, when a major initiative came to an end, what had worked and what hadn't.

McFarland believes that a number of local foundations feel a responsibility for the health of the metro area and the rest of the state and for picking the most urgent issues to work on. He points to the success of the six nonmetro regional initiative funds, still in operation today, that the McKnight Foundation started 30 years ago.

For the complete interview summary see: McFarland interview

Individual Responses:

David Durenberger
The headline says it all. All that well-intentioned, donor-advised, or director-advised money going into curing those affected, without understanding the systemic nature of the problems. I well recall somewhere in my first Citizens League endeavor in the 70s, the new Robert Wood Johnson Foundation sent reps to Minneapolis-Saint Paul to discuss where to focus its investments that related in some way to the founders’ health-related businesses. So we PSO-types recommended looking at root causes as we were doing in Minnesota.

Forty years later, with a professional career in using public financing to get at root causes in the private financing of health care cost escalation, I must say they took our advice, but their national leadership seemed incapable of translating it into deliberate and focused financial investment [or] in understanding, and project support for, change. They were so big they could have shaped the national agenda at a time when the only politics in health policy was provider politics, not political, and there were a large number of us ready, able, and willing to help. Today that number in Congress, and the Minnesota Legislature as well, is down to three or four, max, and the rest find it much too complicated, so they are swayed by both
partisan and provider influences (and money of course).

Take Dick’s advice and run with it.

Scott Halstead
I didn't reach many conclusions other than the Foundations all operate differently, don't get involved in State and federal politics and often don't get to the root cause.

They perhaps should be a source of funding non-partisan public policy research with no strings attached.

Robert Brown
The most encouraging thing to me was the idea of senior management getting their subordinates involved in the community. Too often people feel pressured to focus only on their efforts to move up in their company (or educational institution, government agencies, large foundations, or big nonprofit, etc.) so that they don't develop their civic and community responsibilities. This has become more important in our area as the earlier generation of locally grown corporate leaders have been replaced by executives moving here from other communities that don't have the same sense of civic responsibility. I saw how unique we in Minnesota were in the 1980s when I went around the country for the Secretary of Education promoting volunteerism, partnerships, [and] philanthropy. I am afraid that we are regressing to the mean if we don't do something in a systematic way to regain our previous Minnesota culture.

Tom Spitznagle
It has always been fairly obvious that many non-profits and foundations focus too much on treating symptoms instead of root problems. Assuming that these organizations are committed to improving the human condition, it is very hard to understand how many such organizations consistently make this fatal error in strategy. I can only guess that some organizations may be afraid of the political backlash from pointing out to any group of people that they are suffering due, in large part, to their own bad decisions or due to the destructive actions or policies of other public or private entities. It would be interesting to understand what really drives this behavior on the part of many non-profit organizations.

Wayne Jennings
Foundations have provided a lot of support to school improvement. It was a bombshell when McFarland said that two major efforts, one to increase minority graduation and the other to increase primary to 3rd grade achievement had little effect. We have to realize that more of the same will not do. We’ve gotten about as much mileage as possible with the conventional schooling model—especially with economically poor students. Great teachers and well-organized approaches do a little better with the standard model but we don’t get breakthroughs at scale. There are better ways to organize schools. They get significantly better results and increase motivation. Too much of current schooling is without meaning to students and too often the results are a lack of motivation and therefore ineffective effort by pupils.

Ann Berget
This is one of the best interviews you've done recently, in my opinion. It goes to a question I have had for some time: Are foundations primarily politically correct tax shelters now? If they are indifferent to efficacy and do not advocate for policy change in response to learning, …hmmm. This was my experience with major corporate foundations as well as what I know of private ones. Troubling, but good interview.

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The Civic Caucus   is a non-partisan, tax-exempt educational organization.   The Interview Group  includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and business. Click here  to see a short personal background of each.

  John S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill Frenzel, Paul Gilje (Executive Director), Randy Johnson, Sallie Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (Chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, John Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmerman




The Civic Caucus, 01-01-2008
2104 Girard Avenue South, Minneapolis, MN 55405.
Dan Loritz, chair, 612-791-1919   ~   Paul A. Gilje, coordinator, 952-890-5220.

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