There is No Right Answer

I’ve been closely following The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s series on large, staffed foundations versus “lean foundations” that are seemingly able to avoid the problems of messy bureaucracy. The series has focused on dollars out the door relative to staff for a variety of foundations. It also showcased the change in philosophy of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which started with a “lean, informal structure” to an entity that is now home to 900 employees (and spending 16% in expenditures for successful grantmaking.)

It got me thinking: What is the right number of staff at a foundation? You need to have a strategist to help you figure out the impact you want to have. You have to have an accountant to help with bookkeeping, and getting those checks out the door. A communications expert would be incredibly helpful in telling your story (and the story of your grantees). And of course, you are required to have a board of directors.

All that to say: if a foundation is really focused, does it need more than 3 staff members, and 3 board members? But there’s really no right answer for that. Your staff size depends on many, many factors – not just how much money your foundation grants each year. It depends on whether your focus is narrow or broad, and whether you’re supporting one community or a state, or a large region. It depends on the size of your grant awards, and how many cycles you have and what level of support you offer your grantees. And so, there really is no right answer as to what size the staff of your foundation should be. You just need to do what is best to ensure that you are an effective grantmaker.

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