Philanthropy has an uncertain relationship with risk. Foundations big and small couch their strategies around innovation – often complemented by statements about their willingness to take risks in pursuit of those strategies. However, given funders’ current interest in evidence-based work and easily quantifiable results, most haven’t demonstrated an actual willingness or ability to embrace risk.

Much of the conversation about risk relates to the risk of a “failed” grant or grantmaking strategy and risk associated with programmatic focus. Few funders are at the forefront on thorny issues, and even fewer are willing to put themselves out in public in service to the greater good.  This is a particular problem on the local and state levels where foundation actions are viewed in the context of history and relationships.

Jobs in the foundation world are few and far between. Few people leave philanthropy willingly. Entry points are scarce. So are opportunities to move up the career ladder. Yet for those lucky enough to secure them, philanthropy jobs pay well.

The fact that foundation jobs are so desirable creates an interesting juxtaposition: Very few people are willing to jeopardize the comfort, security and fulfillment of their philanthropic jobs by taking the lead on philanthropic risks.

This creates an interesting dynamic: While funders purport to seek leaders who are risk-takers and innovators to solve entrenched problems, few funders provide the true support needed for personal risk-taking.

Instead, a cycle of false homage to innovation and risk occurs: Search firms describe how a foundation is looking for someone not afraid of failure or someone willing to make the big bets that make a difference. Candidates will be told that the board is pleased with the current direction but wants to take more chances.

Read the full article about philanthropic risks by Allen Smart at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.