Surdna CEO on Philanthropic Isolation

An interview with Phillip Henderson about the challenges he faces as the president of the Surdna Foundation.

I recently spoke with my colleague Phillip Henderson about the challenges he faces as the president of the Surdna Foundation, a $755 million charitable family foundation known for its innovative work. Prior to his appointment at Surdna, Henderson was vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF), a trans-Atlantic public policy and grantmaking institution that he joined after an early groundbreaking career in Eastern Europe.

Aaron Hurst: One of the things I love and hate about my job as a CEO is that everyone laughs at my jokes, which is a wonderful thing. However, I struggle with whether people are having a relationship with me or with my business card. What challenges do you face in your position as a foundation president?

Phillip Henderson: It’s really hard in my seat to get good information. It’s really hard to even have a meeting with somebody to learn about a new topic because anything I do comes loaded with expectations and signals broader intent by the foundation, whether I like it or not.

It is rare indeed to have a meeting with someone in the nonprofit world where their motive for the meeting is not to raise money, no matter how informational the conversation is intended to be. The punch line at the end is always, “…and if you’re interested in our work, we’d love to have you fund us.” Those relationships that I had previously with people in the nonprofit world are a little bit trickier now that I am in this position because they can’t help themselves. That’s why it’s not useful, for the most part, for CEOs of foundations to be in place for 25 and 30 years—because somehow you begin to believe the press, whether you like it or not.

AH: That could be tough. How do you make friends with this reality?

PH: When I was not a CEO and was lower in the mix of an organization, the organization was always a great source of relationships, and in fact, many of my close friends now are people I used to work with years ago. That whole universe of work friendships really goes away entirely, and there’s no difference between being a president of a foundation or a nonprofit or a corporation. It’s hard to make friends with people in the industry who are not foundation people.

I have a whole other life that has nothing to do with this—my family life. A lot of my friends outside of here are business folks or they’re people in the town or community. For me, that’s like a parallel universe because they don’t even really understand what a foundation is. They find what I do kind of quirky.

AH: Most people in the nonprofit sector don’t think giving away money is a difficult thing to do. At a basic level, the role of a foundation appears deceptively straightforward: Give away dollars and resources to support social causes. How do you explain your challenge to them?

PH: Giving away money is hard if you’re trying to create social change. If you’re just trying to feed people at a food kitchen or ensure there are more blankets for homeless folks, then it’s pretty straightforward. You find your delivery vehicle, and you just do it.

It is much harder when you’re dealing with social change, because social change is really complex. It is really hard to know at the outset if any particular element of the social change equation is one that you can affect well or directly, or if it is even important to increase the volume of social change. It’s a very complex human system that we’re engaging. It’s just as hard for foundations to know what the right bets are as it is for nonprofits or governments or the private sector. Just because we have the money does not mean that it’s any easier to know for sure what to do.

As a foundation working indirectly, you can effect change only through other people and other institutions. You have to be willing to identify good people and let them do their thing, but you also have to be directive enough to say that these seven or eight investments we’re making in grants or in institutions add up to something and together tell a certain story. There’s an art to that that’s not easy to learn.

AH: You had some tremendous success early in your career. You were a wunderkind. What gets you out of bed now?

PH: One of the notable things about my arrival here, when I took this job, was that I was 38, which for a foundation is extremely young. The challenge in the place I am now in is that life is very comfortable. I have a house in Maplewood, N.J., I have kids growing up and seeming to be on the right track, we have hosted a number of Iraqi refugees over the last several years, so my wife has been filling the house with all sorts of interesting characters and has kept my home life really churning and interesting.

Now I have to avoid the comfortable middle-aged spread. That’s the challenge. It’s not necessarily knowing exactly what comes next or identifying one or two pet projects from within Surdna that are the most exciting to me. I feel like we’re in a good place here at Surdna, and we’re onto some issues and some things that are pretty exciting, and I’m feeling like that’s going pretty well.

Read the full interview at Taproot.

Read more stories by Aaron Hurst.

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  • Courtney Martin's avatar

    BY Courtney Martin

    ON July 25, 2011 07:26 AM

    It’s really refreshing to hear a foundation president, and one this young to boot, being so candid about the challenges of his job. Call me a Gen Y optimist, but I think it’s not only good for other foundation leaders to see this kind of transparency, but it helps nonprofit leaders and development folks have more insight into what kinds of authentic relationships (coupled with rigorous programming and strategy) can truly create social change. Bravo to both Aaron and Phillip!

  • BY John Cary

    ON July 25, 2011 08:18 AM

    As a grantee of big and small foundations alike, I’ve seen some extraordinary, transformational investments that literally fuel social change. I’ve also seen foundations stay the course, rather than face and fund important changes happening and needed in the social sector as well as foundations that seem to lose sight of the nuances and complexity of even their most prized grantees’ work. That’s why this interview with Phillip Henderson of Surdna Foundation is so powerful. He acknowledges that complexity, his role in it, and that of the foundation he leads. This is such an important perspective, and exactly the kind of candidness we need more of. Hats off to Taproot’s Aaron Hurst for asking the tough questions, and Phillip Henderson for answering them.

  • BY Margaret Coady

    ON July 25, 2011 08:57 AM

    Constancy in leadership and creating channels for constructive disagreement are crucial in the dynamic realm of social change – I appreciate the thoughtfulness of this piece in beginning to examine how to manage the tensions between the two.  In business school, one of my favorite professors said: “As a leader, pay attention to how often people disagree with you.  If it’s not at least once a week, something needs to change.”  Perhaps all the more true a funder-grantee relationship?

  • BY Maya Enista Smith

    ON July 25, 2011 10:46 AM

    Thank you Aaron + Phil for your honest, candid conversation. I really appreciate your comment about not always knowing what to do, just because you have the money. Thanks for asking the tough questions, Aaron and thank you for answering them, Phil. PS - We didn’t discuss this at BoardSource dinner, but I grew up in Maplewood, NJ - we’ll discuss..

  • BY Jane Leu, Founder, Upwardly Global

    ON July 25, 2011 11:59 AM

    Great interview! Kudos to Philip for helping Iraqi refugees get settled in the US! It’s nice to hear about someone taking a hands-on approach to helping the real people at the center of important global issues like migration and displacement.

  • Peter York, TCC Group's avatar

    BY Peter York, TCC Group

    ON July 25, 2011 07:07 PM

    Excellent and refreshingly candid discussion! The particular response that I found to be the central tension was Phil’s point that, “it is really hard to know at the outset if any particular element of the social change equation is one that you can affect well or directly, or if it is even important to increase the volume of social change. It’s a very complex human system that we’re engaging.” This sensitivity to, and obvious deep understanding of the complexities of the social change soup, including the tacit knowledge of the need for contextual flavors, is an important insight that I know many philanthropic leaders experience, but not enough express so transparently. This is the central philanthropic tension, and requires leadership of a nature that is both humble and courageous, at the same time, without believing that these two attitudes are not reflective of some terrible state of cognitive dissonance, but instead ideal. Thanks for sharing!

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