Thoughts on the Sandler Foundation

Throughout the post, "we" refers to GiveWell and Good Ventures, who work as partners on the Open Philanthropy Project.

Note: Steve Daetz of the Sandler Foundation reviewed a draft of this post prior to publication.

Previously, we wrote about the tradeoff between expertise and breadth in philanthropy. We noted the traditional “program officer” model of philanthropy, in which staff specialize in particular causes, and we contrasted it with some other possible models that sacrifice true cause-level expertise, while allowing a philanthropist to work in more areas at once.

We cited the Sandler Foundation as an example of a foundation that appears to have a strong track record despite not following the traditional “program officer” model. Since then, we’ve had a couple of extended conversations with the Sandler Foundation’s Herb Sandler and Steve Daetz. We’ve tried to understand better how its approach differs from more traditional approaches, and what the pros and cons are. We’ve come out thinking that:

Notable Sandler Foundation grants

We discussed multiple interesting grants in our conversation with the Sandler Foundation. Below are some highlights:

I’m generally interested in cases where a foundation played a major role in the development of a strong and important institution, and at this point we’ve spoken with the heads of many major foundations and asked them about their major success stories. I think the above list compares favorably with comparable lists I’d be able to put together for other foundations’ work over the last decade (based in many cases on off-the-record conversations). This isn’t necessarily a fully appropriate comparison, since the Sandler Foundation explicitly prioritizes making large grants and helping to start organizations; it’s possible that other foundations have had equal or greater impact with larger numbers of smaller grants, and that it’s simply hard to put together comparable lists of highly tangible “success stories.” Still, my impression is that the Sandler Foundation has been quite successful in helping to build strong organizations, despite having a much smaller staff – and less subject-matter expertise – than traditional foundations.

The Sandler Foundation approach

From talking to the Sandler Foundation, I perceive it as diverging from traditional foundations on a couple of key dimensions:

1. The priority placed on funding strong leadership. The Sandler Foundation emphasized its preference for flexible, long-term support rather than constantly picking and prescribing projects. This sort of support is likely especially valuable to grantees, and even more so for new organizations trying to attract outstanding talent. At the same time, giving flexible and long-term support is a major “bet,” and seems most appropriate when one has very high confidence in the leadership one is supporting. The Sandler Foundation emphasized its extensive due diligence on leadership (for example, Sandler Foundation staff had over 30 conversations about John Podesta before supporting him to start Center for American Progress), and its high expectations for leaders: it aims to support people who are highly strategic, highly receptive to criticism and interested in self-improvement, and highly aligned with the Sandler Foundation on values and communication (“good chemistry” was emphasized).

2. A high level of “opportunism”: being ready to put major funding or no funding behind an idea, depending on the quality of the specific opportunity. The Sandler Foundation emphasized its lack of well-defined “budgets” for either money or time: its staff are often exploring several ideas at once with a low level of time commitment, and ready to substantially raise their involvement when a good opportunity presents itself. In the case of ProPublica, the Sandler Foundation first developed the basic idea for a nonprofit newsroom in 2006, and had 15-20 conversations with potential leaders; in May of 2007, when they met Paul Steiger, they quickly became interested in funding him and started putting much more time into the idea. At the same time, there are some cases in which the Sandler Foundation has explored an idea or an issue for a considerable period of time, and ultimately decided not to make any major grants. The general pattern seems to be that the Sandler Foundation puts a great deal of “front-end energy” into promising grant opportunities they’ve identified, and spends relatively less time on (a) pursuing ideas for which strong leaders haven’t yet been identified; (b) following up on a given existing grant (though it still spends substantial time on those as well).

The Sandler Foundation believes that cause-specific “program officers” are a poor fit for this model. The Sandler model relies on strong assessment of organizational leadership, with relatively few, large grants to trusted leaders. Program officers tend to have incentives to make more, smaller grants, and tend not to be well positioned for the funders to defer to their judgments about organizational leadership. Program officers also typically want pre-specified budgets, which the foundation leadership worries would make them insufficiently opportunistic.

What can we learn?

We don’t think the Sandler Foundation’s model is obviously the best one, and we don’t plan on fully emulating it. Among other things,

With that said, we see the Sandler Foundation as something of a proof of concept that high-impact grants can come from opportunistic generalists.

For reasons outlined previously, we’re highly interested in trying out a philanthropic model that looks across multiple issue areas for the very most outstanding opportunities, and we think that taking a highly opportunistic approach – scanning multiple areas, waiting for outstanding leadership, keeping the bar high, and being ready to get very involved when an opportunity comes up – makes a great deal of sense for this goal. By taking this attitude toward many of our focus areas, we might be able to make the most of our generalist staff, and be able to keep our bar high for the opportunities we get most involved in (something that would be more difficult to do if we pre-committed to a smaller number of particular issues and ideas).

Note: another perspective on the Sandler Foundation is available in a January piece from Inside Philanthropy.