By Gary L. Yates
The concept of public service has always been important to me. I was a junior in high school in 1961 when John Kennedy gave his inaugural speech and I completely embraced his challenge: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I believe that this idea is even more important today given the severe economic recession and its effect on all aspects of our society. It’s not what government or some other entity can do for us. Rather what can or will each of us do for our country, state, county, city, community? In the final analysis that’s what really matters.
One of the great strengths of private, independent foundations is their diversity. What they have in common is that each is established with private dollars that have been set aside to be used for a public or charitable purpose. However, that public purpose is unique to each individual foundation, codified in its mission and articles of incorporation. It is the duty of each foundation’s board of trustees to develop the strategies and activities they deem most appropriate to achieve their foundation's charitable mission. As a result, private foundations range from being completely operational — developing and implementing their own programs while making few or no grants — to completely grantmaking, operating no programs of their own and providing grants to nonprofits to achieve their missions.
The California Wellness Foundation is first and foremost a grantmaking foundation. We see the fulfillment of our mission more through the actions and achievements of our grantees than those of the Foundation itself. We see ourselves as a service organization whose role is to be instrumental in the success of the organizations that we fund. The challenge is how to actualize the concept of being of service as an organization. I believe there are four criteria that are instrumental in doing so.
First, we are a responsive grantmaker. Rather than design new programs and ask nonprofits if they would like to apply for funds to carry out our ideas, we ask nonprofits to tell us what they need so we can provide them with the resources to achieve their goals.
Second, we attempt to level the playing field by creating an open-door process by which any organization in California can gain access to the Foundation’s grant process by submitting a one-page letter of interest. All letters are reviewed and organizations with $40,000 annual operating budgets are given equal weight with those who have $90 million annual operating budgets. It doesn’t help to know me, a trustee or a program officer; all letters are equal.
Third, we have set a floor for the provision of general operating support grants. No less than half our grant dollars each year must be given for this purpose. These are grants for keeping the doors open and the lights on, for salaries, ongoing operating costs and paying for uncompensated care. In 2007, general operating support accounted for 63 percent of our grant dollars and rose to 73 percent in 2008. This is a testimony to the responsive nature of our grantmaking and, given the strain today on health and human service organizations with increasing demand and decreasing revenue, I expect this percentage will be even greater in 2009.
Fourth, we work to live our organizational values. Like most organizations we have a set of values posted on the wall. To become real, these must be embraced and practiced in our day-to-day interactions with each other and our constituents. I believe three of our values are most important to our work as a service organization.
Integrity: Keeping our word. If we say we’ll contact you about your request within three months, we do so. Sounds simple, but requires an ongoing commitment to hold ourselves accountable.
Trust: Believing that the organizations receiving grants will keep their word and do what they agreed to in an award letter. With trust there is no need for heavy monitoring of grantees. In fact, once a grant is made it is highly unlikely the organization will see or talk with a program officer, unless they make a request to do so.
Respect: Believing that the people who are on the ground doing the work, running a nonprofit, know best how to do that work — not the foundation. That while we have the funds and nonprofits need those funds, our interaction and negotiation should be as respectful of them as we would like them to be of us.
Simply put, for our Foundation to operate as a service organization we need to understand it’s not what we focus on, but how we work with our constituents that really matters. As I learned long ago as a practicing psychotherapist – respect for the other person overcomes any technique.
Gary L. Yates
President and CEO
The California Wellness Foundation
This message is based on a speech made by Mr. Yates on May 8, 2009 at the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs upon receiving the Lifetime of Excellence in Public Service Award.