Foundations for the Common Good

Caring to Change, an independent project conducted in collaboration with the Aspen Institute's Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, earlier this year released Foundations for the Common Good, a report written by Mark Rosenman on how grantmaking can be more effective if focused on the broader goal of advancing the "Common Good."  Dr. Rosenman sought the input of not only established leaders in philanthropy, but also interviewed younger people, people of color, and others in philanthropy and nonprofits not normally involved in setting foundation strategy. His goal was "to uncover their criticism of grantmaking and their ideas about how foundations can be more effective at creating a better world."

The immediate question raised by the title of the report is what is the Common Good?  Are there not wide variations in what each individual thinks is best for the collective, and are there not conflicting interests of different communities?  The report provides a detailed discussion of its definition of the Common Good and states that "[i]ts most basic meaning is that the community and its institutions should serve the good of all its citizens and not just the restricted good of a particular ruler or class."  In a reference to the U.S. Constitution, Rosenman reminds us that "We the People" are not a special interest group.

The report provides examples of “common values,” those that "create and maintain the conditions necessary for on-going dialogue and debate about what constitutes the Common Good in theory and practice. Such conditions include both basic rights to survival but extend also to conditions that enable people to participate in public projects and discourse."  Rosenman cautions that "[t]hese “common values” must not be confused with the values of the majority or of a community that restricts membership and excludes some voices."

Of course, there is no consensus on the Common Good values or their application to particular situations.  But the report emphasizes that foundations must engage in discussion and consideration of their leaders' vision of the Common Good in making their grantmaking policies and decisions.  "It is this process of grounding grantmaking in the Common Good, of finding its meaning and identifying its implications for actions, that needs to guide foundations."

Common Good

"The point of identifying and discussing Common Good values should not be to privilege one set of terms or meanings over others. Instead, by talking about these values we can uncover our assumptions about what we are doing and why, openly analyze and debate those assumptions, identify ideals that can serve as points of connection and rallying cries for people from many different backgrounds, and learn from one another. Thus, it is essential to defining and decoding the Common Good that the full diversity of peoples have the right and capacity to be represented equitably with voice and power in the debate. This process then can help us avoid the repetition of ineffective patterns, inject transparency into decision-making, build common cause, and ultimately help foundations to create a better world more efficiently."

Beyond its discussion of the Common Good, the report offers working strategies to implement grantmaking with the Common Good as its unifying theme.  But Rosenman emphasizes that the strategies will have maximal impact only if "undertaken by grantmakers who consider the values that motivate them and the ways in which they plan to create a better society: through mission-specific and other efforts designed in ways to also advance the broader Common Good."

The strategies are broken into three categories:


Within each category are practical steps worthy of serious consideration by every foundation, including:

  • Define the core values that motivate your foundation's work.
  • Revisit your mission statement.  [GT – This has legal implications as well.]
  • Consider grantmaking for programs that intend to explicitly instill, reinforce, and animate Common Good values.
  • Affirm that diversity is a central concern in all program areas and for general support grants.  [GT – Rosenman's attention to diversity is important and much appreciated.]
  • Support nonprofit organizational development initiatives that address concerns of diversity and which vigorously pursue equality of opportunity/outcomes.
  • Support and design initiatives that bring together leaders of disparate organizations and provide them with the opportunity to explore commonalities and build collaboration, as well as to set their efforts in context of the Common Good.
  • Convene grantees that are potential collaborators, but don’t compel partnerships.  [GT – Again, important in a legal context too.]
  • Create systems-reform opportunities by collaborating with other foundations.  [GT – Fiscal sponsors may be an important vehicle for such collaborative efforts.]
  • Encourage all grantees to at least consider public policy.

Get the full report here.

See also "How Even Great Foundations Can Do More for the Common Good" – Dr. Rosenman's opinion piece for The Chronicle of Philanthropy (Oct. 29, 2009).

And for a broader discussion of philanthropy and the pursuit of the common good, read Civil Society, Philanthropy, and the Fate of the Commons by Bruce Sievers.