Starting a Foundation? Our Checklist Can Help

December 5, 2017

When starting a foundation, resilience is often as important as ideas and talent. But even the most resilient among us will benefit from tools that help us see the forest through the trees without overlooking the basics. Such tools need not be complex. According to renowned author and surgeon, Atul Gawande, the humblest of tools—for example, making a process list to follow when completing a given task—can help us avoid error and get things right.

That’s why The Giving Practice at Philanthropy Northwest developed the Foundation Start-Up Checklist.

In the 1990s, I was executive director of the Pride Foundation, a rapidly growing public foundation. My occasional sleepless, middle-of-the-night anxieties were fueled by the sheer number of areas that required my attention. I also worried that incremental accomplishments, or progress, in one area would reveal gaps in other areas. It was like plate spinning, with me grimacing and gritting my teeth throughout, for fear of what I might notice was starting to fall next.

Oh, how I wish I had a Pretty Good Tool like the Foundation Start-Up Checklist. It would have come in handy—just being able to categorize and map all the competing priorities in one place would have significantly improved my sleep.

Since then, I’ve also come to appreciate that many foundations experience multiple beginnings and evolving needs. Shifts in strategy, such as toward greater community leadership or prioritizing advocacy, can entail a 2.0, or even 3.0, remodel on your existing capacity or platforms. You might need to redeploy staff and/or share resources to achieve alignment or fulfill a greater goal in your collaborations and collective action with partners and affinity groups. An infusion of additional assets might necessitate staffing up and/or developing communications that help prepare you for extra scrutiny or a new set of investment evaluation and reporting practices. What’s more, any successful change management process will likely require the creation of common vocabulary and shared expectations around priorities and timelines. Boards, volunteers, staff, donors and community partners may not only be touching and perceiving different parts of your organization (don’t think of an elephant!), they also may feel they are in competition to have their needs addressed first. The possibilities are truly endless.

So, resiliency and adaptive leadership matter—as do tools that help you stay organized.

In periods of organizational transition and evolution, the Foundation Start-Up Checklist will additionally help you and your key constituencies better understand the full range of moving parts, plus the sequence in which they will receive attention. The Checklist also clarifies who is accountable for work in each area, and prompts discussions on whether the tasks involved are most appropriately handled by board or staff, or if they need to be outsourced. 

All our Pretty Good Tools include an annotated version that captures insights and learnings from recent field work by our consultants. A check-box like “Board Benefits” gets unpacked and offers prompts, from “discretionary or matching gifts” and “monetary compensation” to areas for “more research”. The latter of which doesn’t have to be daunting. Philanthropy Northwest has a working sense of how our members currently address many of these concerns, and can either provide you with a summary overview or broker more in-depth peer funder conversations to help you move forward.

But the best thing about a Checklist? The pleasureful reassurance you will experience when checking off boxes as you complete specific tasks. If you’re anything like me, such a thing will calm your head and heart—and help you sleep better at night!

Download the Foundation Start-Up Checklist today.

Our materials continuously improve with your input. We invite your feedback on areas we missed, or annotations you might suggest. We also invite you to suggest, or initiate, Pretty Good Tools that you wish you had, or would like to have, in your philanthropy adventures. An initial version of the Foundation Start-Up Checklist was shared, and then iterated upon, with Sonya Campion after the Campion Foundation was formed. We are grateful for her trust, invaluable feedback and collaboration.