Letting Go

Foundations often undermine their own efforts by micromanaging how social problems are solved. Two insiders explore why foundations have developed this way and what grant makers can do to foster high impact strategies.

We would probably be better off as a society if the decision makers in the nation’s large private foundations took up surfing. Why? Because surfing is about letting go, and that’s what foundations must do to achieve higher impact. Surfing is incredibly humbling, an encounter with the enormous power, beauty, and unpredictability of the ocean. No surfer would attempt to change the shape of the waves or the schedule of the tides, because these forces are far beyond any one person’s control.


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1 We owe special thanks to the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for allowing us to detail a number of its grant cases, in order to share lessons learned.

2 "Evaluation of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation's High School Grants Initiative: 2000-2005 Final Report," The National Evaluation of High School Transformation, August 2006.

3 Gary Walker, "Midcourse Corrections to a Major Initiative: A Report on the James Irvine Foundation's CORAL Experience," May 2007.

4 Owen Barder, "Beyond Planning: Markets and Networks for Better Aid," Center for Global Development, October 2009.

5 Donella Meadows, The Systems Thinker, vol. 13, no. 2, Pegasus Communications, 2002.

6 Nancy Roob, "$120 Million in Growth Capital Secured to Advance Opportunities for Low-Income Youth," June 2008 President's Page at

7 Excerpt from Judith Rodin's "Scaling Innovation" speech at the inaugural conference of the Social Impact Exchange on June 17, 2010, in New York City. 

8 Ian Wilhelm, "Knight of the Newsroom," The Chronicle of Philanthropy, July 23, 2009.