Stacy Palmer of the Chronicle of Philanthropy Reflects on Thirty Five Years as a Watchdog and Cheerleader for the Field – Transcript
Kirk: Welcome to Let’s Hear It.
Eric: Let’s Hear It is a podcast for and about the field of foundation and nonprofit communications produced by its two co-hosts, Eric Brown and Kirk Brown. No relation.
Kirk: Well said, Eric. And I’m Kirk.
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Eric: So, let’s get onto the show.
Kirk: And here we are again. We’re back. It’s Let’s Hear It. Welcome in. I’m glad you found us.
Eric: We’re back. We’re back. We were just here and we’re back again.
Kirk: We were just here and now we’re here again because that’s what we want to be is here and always here for you and for you, Mr. Brown.
Eric: And you, Mr. Brown. We want to be in people’s ears, in their hearts, in your hearts, in your mind, in their ears, in your workouts, in your cleaning regimens, in your walking the dog. I’ve been told that sometimes people associate us with animal bodily functions, but that’s okay. If you’re listening, that’s fine.
Kirk: We’ll take it. We’ll take it. So I think, tell me, Mr. Brown, we are at an inflection point with this episode.
Eric: Are we inflecting again, Kirk?
Kirk: This is another inflection point because we have for your listening pleasure today. A giant in our field. Yes. And, and I have to say, you know, Eric, I have an enormous respect for you, as you know, and I’ve had enormous respect for you every, ever since I first met you.
Eric: That’s your problem, Kirk.
My respect has only grown as I’ve seen this, a list of guests come on the podcast and this is, so I want to say one thing we usually say this for later, but I want to do this, thank you right up front. We owe the person you’re about to listen to an enormous debt of gratitude because we believe in our world that transparency makes things better. This person has worked to make our field more transparent, which means that this person can rightfully claim that they have made all of philanthropy.
Eric: that’s true. I agree with you. And of course, we are talking about Stacy Palmer because if you’re listening, you probably saw the thing on your email or on the, it’s not a very huge secret, it’s not a great reveal. Stacy Palmer, the founder of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, who is now the CEO, as Stacy Palmer says, steps upstairs, gets, kicks herself upstairs and, and makes way for Elbert Ventura to become the editor in chief. Stacy Palmer has been a part of my life for the last 20 years. And that is just true. That is, that is [00:03:00] the gods on this chair that I spent a lot of time thinking about the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the work that she has helped to create. And it was. An absolute delight to have that conversation with her. So this is Stacy Palmer from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, who founded the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 1988 when Ronald Reagan was president.
Kirk: Man, another big note, take big swings, take big swings, try big things, do big things. Stacy Palmer has done it. And you can see the old school quality here. If you want to find Stacy on one of the at platforms, guess what Stacy’s handle is. @stacypalmer. That’s right. So this is Stacy Palmer from the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Let’s listen. And then we’ll come back Stacy Palmer on Let’s Hear It.
Eric: Welcome to Let’s Hear It. If you work in philanthropy, especially philanthropy communications, my guest today needs no introduction, but I’m going to give her one anyway. Stacy Palmer. Yes, Stacy Palmer started the Chronicle of Philanthropy back in the Reagan administration. That’s 1988. You’ve been covering this industry for longer than many of our listeners have walked this earth, and in so many ways, Stacy has simultaneously been philanthropy’s cheerleader and its watchdog, and you have been a constant presence in the lives of so many people in this field, myself included. Stacy Palmer, thank you so much for coming on Let’s Hear It.
Stacy: Delighted to join you.
Eric: I’ve been looking forward to this conversation for quite some time. And let’s just start at the beginning. What did you think you were getting into when you started the Chronicle of Philanthropy way back in 1988?
Stacy: Yeah, we weren’t sure, but we knew there was terrific journalism to be had and that too few journalists were paying attention to the nonprofit world. What we also knew was that nonprofits and foundations were very isolated from one another. They didn’t know what was going on. And we really had a call from the field of people saying, this world is starting to professionalize. There’s a lot of important stuff happening, and yet there’s no great way to communicate. And I’m going to date myself further than you already have in talking about that. The Reagan era, but I need to remind everybody that there was no internet then and so the only way people had to communicate was through things like newspapers, like ours, that we came out every two weeks and we were sharing the news of the field and saying, here’s what’s going on.
And what was very exciting was it helped people identify that this was a world that had professionals in it, and you started seeing master’s programs and other kinds of things developing around the same time. All of a sudden, this world was getting more sophisticated and needed more people doing it.
So we knew those things. What some people warned us about, is they said, foundations especially, they don’t really like news coverage and they’re going to be really difficult and they’re going to make your life very hard and maybe you shouldn’t do this. In our first couple of weeks, people were really like, good idea, but we don’t think it’s going to turn out o work that way and very soon after we started publishing, we did a story that was critical of a foundation and we got a call from a foundation communications officer saying, how dare you call our trustees? You are not allowed to call them. And that’s the world was back then, is that it’s changed so dramatically that people understand that, of course, foundations need to communicate and respond to the public, but it was just a very sleepy little world.
Eric: It’s so funny. I’ve often said that when you work in a foundation, it’s like the kids on the playground who are watching the other children play. Or actually, in philanthropy, it’s the kids on the playground who are paying the other children to play.
Eric: And your job is to observe and understand the kids who are paying the other kids to play. It’s so many steps removed from things. How does it feel to be that kind of an observer and you’re in conversation, of course, with the field of philanthropy, literally and figuratively. What is it like to cover that kind of field, which is one remove from what I used to say is like actual work?
Stacy: I think one of the things that is the most interesting about this field is to cover the work and what nonprofits are achieving. And one of the questions we often ask is, a big grant was announced. Did it make a difference? And especially to come back 10 years later and say, what really happened? What were the results? What was the goal? And I think journalism doesn’t do that enough in a lot of areas. There are plenty of ways to be able to report on results and talk about what mattered, even if a foundation maybe isn’t crazy about having us do that. There are always lots of angles and ways to do it.
And I think too, once people started reading stories and learning about each other, they got fascinated and they wanted to participate and they didn’t want to be left out.
Eric: You’re quite right. Back in the day, when I took the job as the head of communications at the Hewlett Foundation, there was no communications department. So they just hired me like, there’s a phone ringing. Would you please answer it and tell them to go away? And frankly, most of the, my counterparts back in the day at MacArthur and Ford and others were media relations people, and half of their job was to make the media go away.
It wasn’t necessarily about getting in the paper. For some it was, and obviously there are foundations, even back then, that were eager to engage reporters and others. But for a lot of folks, it was just to be, it was like Greta Garbo, I vant to be left alone. And that has changed a lot in these 35 years since you started.
Stacy: Yeah, very dramatically. We had one foundation when we first started, we asked them if we could list their grants and they said, why would you want to do that? More people might apply. That would be a bad idea. And now people understand that in a different way, but that’s how closed a world it was.
Eric: Were there specific moments when the turning points, when that started to shift, are there things that you can point to that revealed to you that philanthropy was changing, how it was facing its various audiences?
Stacy: Yeah, I think, a lot of it has to do with the leaders who came in and wanted to make more of a difference and saw that it really wasn’t working to be this quiet world. And that if you’re going to try to create change, you need to do things like influence public policy. And so, speaking out about it really makes a difference.
Just grant making alone doesn’t do it. And I think as foundations realize that that changed things. And then you had more living donors coming into the picture. Obviously, once Bill and Melinda Gates started giving in a very big way, you had people who wanted to talk about philanthropy and who the press wanted to talk to.
It’s not like the foundations that, For MacArthur, who had donors that were not alive, you had people who were the ones actually giving the money away. And I think that led to a change in thinking about communicating and the importance of doing that.
Eric: It’s interesting when I came in we were in the middle of one of the periodic congressional moments in the sun or the moon or the dark, wherever we were. And I actually can’t remember it was, it might’ve been Ernest Stook, but it was one of those folks who was going to regulate philanthropy.
it’s like cicadas. They come up out of the dirt every 17 years to regulate philanthropy and then they go back away because they don’t seem to care. however, I think that you and. Some of the other folks who are covering philanthropy have been pushing against philanthropy to try and improve its practices and improve the structure in which philanthropy exists.
Not the least of which is payout. Should foundations be paying more money out? Should they be allowed to operate in perpetuity? Should donor advised funds be allowed to exist in the way? Should I be able to take my tax deduction in 1900 and not, pay any grants until 2000? What do you see as the current regulatory framework.
Where do you see any of this going? Does anybody care in Congress? Obviously they should but what is, what does the landscape look like to you now versus 35 years ago?
Stacy: Yeah. And that’s been one of the biggest changes that we’ve seen. I used to have two reporters focused on covering things in Washington, one looking at the IRS and one looking at Congress. And there was so much activity that we could have people on full time beats and there was enough news to happen.
And then very slowly, I would always assign my best reporters to those things and they would come to me and they’d say, there’s nothing happening. I need to go onto another beat and do something else. Congress is dysfunctional in lots of ways. They are not paying attention to what’s going on at foundations or nonprofits very much.
They’re not agreeing on many things. It’s not just philanthropy, of course, that is subject to that problem. I don’t see any action likely to happen. I do think some of the dark money issues that have come up, certainly the Supreme Court kinds of things, we see a lot of money in politics, when that relates to nonprofit giving.
How does the money come? Did it come from a donor advice fund? Was it channeled in that way? I think those are the kinds of things that Congress might start paying some attention to. And there’s definitely concern that elite institutions may be the targets of Congress. So in the field itself, I see a lot of foundation presidents and others, very concerned that regulation might happen.
I don’t see it truly happening by talking to the lawmakers. We’re not seeing much traction.
Eric: You’d think, I know, when you work at a foundation, you just don’t want anybody to tell you what to do. Let me do it, I know best, let me do it, but it feels to me like a little regulation isn’t gonna kill philanthropy. If anything it might make them a little sharper. I’ve always said foundations have no enemies in nature, which is why they don’t have sharp teeth and they can’t run so fast. Whether it’s increasing the payout or I don’t know, reducing the lifespan of a foundation might make them better. What do you think? What do you think would make philanthropy better?
Stacy: I think you raised an important issue in talking about donor advised funds and the other kinds of things that have changed in the world of philanthropy, since we started, there’s a lot of money in those funds. There are no requirements to distribute it. There’s not much transparency about them.
We don’t know who’s giving them money. We don’t know about the transfer from foundations to donor advised funds and back and forth and all of that kind of thing. So more regulation that will lead to more sunshine, I think will make a tremendous difference. That helps in almost every other kind of area is that when you know more, then reporters can do stories and the public can decide whether they like something, or they don’t like something.
We certainly see with the ProPublica reporting on the Supreme Court, for example, and those kinds of gifts, action coming from that. So I think the biggest change that would make a difference is requiring greater transparency.
Eric: Yeah I completely agree. How do you think about what to cover? It’s a big question. It’s a huge field. There’s no shortage of stories out there. What do you, how do you do your decision making?
Stacy: Yeah, so there are a number of different things that we do. One is obviously we care about making sure professionals in the field can do their job better. So we look at stories and say, is there something that really makes a difference to understanding the world right now? For example, we’re covering very intensively what does the Supreme Court affirmative action decision mean? Who does it affect? How widespread is it going to be? What’s coming next? How do you make sure that you’re not vulnerable to attack in your own organization? Because clearly there are going to be more lawsuits and those kinds of things.
Sometimes it’s very much triggered by what’s in the news. Other times we’re looking at trends. What’s happened since the pandemic has at least for the most part ended a lot of nonprofits are in really tough times at this point, they were very resilient in part, government aid foundations were very generous.
There was a lot of money flowing in. And so there were fears that, nonprofits would collapse in great numbers. I think there was a prediction at one point that 40 percent of nonprofits would close. And that didn’t come close to happening, but right now we see nonprofits in a rather perilous state.
So we’re looking at their finances, trying to understand what’s going on. And it’s not just the finances, but we see that the leaders are feeling that this is a very difficult job. And some of them are thinking about retiring. There’s a lot of interest in having maybe 2 CEOs leading the organization, sharing leadership, doing that kind of thing, because this job has gotten just too hard.
So we think about things like that and try to talk about what does that mean for the field when those kinds of things are happening. Then we have another strand of reporting that really looks at the results of what philanthropy is achieving. So we want to show people what makes a difference.
What happens when you have a big, ambitious, philanthropic effort? What are the detours? What are the things that end up working? And looking over the long run. So those are the really in depth stories that we do that are not triggered by the news. Sometimes they have a news peg. Right now we’re looking at some of the grants that are made on climate change and we’re pegging them to the heat emergencies that are going on around the country and looking at what foundations have done about that.
But other times, we’re just looking at what are the most effective ways to make a difference.
Eric: Yeah, it’s interesting. Many foundations, even to this day, continue to promote, the grants going out the door, so the transaction. And it’s because it’s so much harder to talk about the benefits. The benefits sometimes are almost generational. They take a very long time before you can see the value of them coming in and yet and philanthropy points back to their whatever their three big victories, the Green Revolution lines on the highways and Sesame Street.
Do you have any thoughts about where you think the biggest and best wins for philanthropy have been, I guess since, let’s go since Sesame Street.
Stacy: Yeah, and there are a lot of them. But I would say, one is early childhood education. And a lot of foundations have put money into that area. And one of the reasons it’s made a difference is because they really work to attract bipartisan support for pouring more money into early childhood education.
That work started before the pandemic but became even more important because we saw the teachers who are in early childhood education were completely burnt out, weren’t paid enough, needed to have some support. There is not enough money being provided by the federal government to ensure that everybody who needs early childhood education gets it.
Foundations played a very important role in putting that much more on the agenda and really having some wins in terms of passage. So that’s one of the ones that we’ve looked at lately that made a difference. We’ve also seen a lot of interest in things like wildfire protection. and more donors looking at that. And you can’t help but thinking of that as we see the wildfires in Canada we need more efforts like that.
So there’s a lot that philanthropy has done. It usually doesn’t get very much attention.
Eric: We’re gonna take a very short break and be back with Stacy Palmer of the Chronicle of Philanthropy in just a second.
Eric: And we’re back with Stacy Palmer. The soon to, I guess you are now the CEO of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You started this august institution in 1988. Let’s talk just a little bit about this change that’s happening at the Chronicle. So you have kicked yourself upstairs, it sounds like. And you have a new editor-in-chief in Elbert Ventura.
Can you talk about the decision and how that all came about?
Stacy: Yeah. One of the things that we decided was we really wanted to be able to influence how Americans understand philanthropy. And we know that they don’t understand very much about how it works and why this sector is so important, even though 1 out of every 11 Americans works for a nonprofit. In 2020, we got a terrific grant from the Lilly Endowment to work with the Associated Press and a group called The Conversation to really work at that problem and say, what can we do to educate Americans about what is in the world of philanthropy, what matters, and really help folks understand what’s happening. And we had so much success with that grant, including persuading the Associated Press that this was an important area to cover, that there were really good stories out there. They were a little skeptical when we first started as to whether this was going to be terrific journalism.
There’s so many areas that a news service like Associated Press covers that they weren’t sure whether they would find enough in the world of nonprofits and philanthropy. And so they did. And so we started thinking it’s wonderful that we’re doing this, but we want to work with other journalism organizations around the country and make sure that they cover philanthropy.
We have a fellowship program where we work with local journalists around the country to be able to teach them. We spend a year with them, coaching them on how to cover philanthropy, but it’s limited as to how much we can do. So we said, we need to think about ways that we can expand our organization so we can do a lot more.
And we also knew we needed to do a lot more for the nonprofit professionals. They have many needs. The sector’s gotten more complicated. We need to do more information for them, more data, other kinds of things. And so we drew up a really ambitious growth plan and said, I think this requires going nonprofit because we needed some philanthropic funds to fuel some of that growth.
We absolutely rely on earned revenue for most of what we do, but to innovate, we needed philanthropic capital.
Eric: And so how is that going to manifest itself in the Elbert Ventura regime?
Stacy: Yes, so Elbert was at Vox and really understands how to attract readers, how to focus on things, and really how to operate in a digital environment. Vox, they do all kinds of things, videos, podcasts, other sorts of things. So you’ll see more of that from the Chronicle, different ways of providing information and making sure that it’s delivered in more than just, a single article or two.
Eric: Obviously you were a paper way, way back. You went into the internet age, you’ve gone into the social media age. Like any other large institution that has had to adapt over time, what would you say the biggest changes for the Chronicle have been over these years?
How did you adapt? What worked? What didn’t work? And what does that mean for what you’re going to do next?
Stacy: Yeah. One of the things we realized that we didn’t need to be just the newspaper of record, which is how we started. And I think most people think of that. And we realized that what people turn to us for was trend information, big ideas, really thinking about those things. Our opinion page is one of the most popular parts of the chronicle, and that’s something that we really plan to expand and make sure that we have as diverse a sampling of views as we can. So that’s probably the next thing you’ll start seeing from us is a real rollout of much, much more. We changed in saying, what are our areas of emphasis?
Another thing that we do is we provide webinars, which are professional training, that help especially fundraisers learn how to do their jobs better. We do online briefings, I’m getting ready for one next week on the Supreme Court decision, and making sure that we’ve got experts who can really interpret what does it mean for people on a practical level and what’s next, those are the kinds of things that we have found really bringing our journalism to life.
People don’t want to simply read an article. They want to do other kinds of things based on the knowledge that our journalists have found. So I think those are the things that have worked the best for us. I occasionally get a note from a reader that will say, wait a minute. I always used to get X or Y or Z in the paper version.
Where is it? And of course, it’s now on our website. So not all of our readers have necessarily made the transition fully and we have to remind them sometimes that there’s plenty on the website.
Eric: It’s so interesting because the Chronicle has been, it is the paper of record in so many ways for philanthropy, for fundraisers, for sure. It’s like Kremlinology. They’re reading the Chronicle to see who’s giving what kinds of grants, and what do they care about, and all that kind of stuff.
It’s almost like you’re a dating app –
Stacy: We might brand ourselves that way!
Eric: For fundraisers and philanthropy and you also I think walk at a very interesting line between, you are cheerleading philanthropy in that you want this industry, this business, this really important aspect of our democracy to succeed. And at the same time, you’re holding it accountable.
Inside the organization, do you think about how you straddle that line between fundraiser and grant maker, and cheerleader and accountability institution.
Stacy: Yeah, you put your finger on one of our goals is to make sure that fundraisers and grant makers talk to each other. And that there’s a place for them to convene. When we first started the Chronicle, some people had hoped that it would be for foundations only. And we thought that was a terrible idea. There were already publications that did that.
But also the whole point of what we wanted to do was draw this field together, get them to talk to each other and make sure that. Everybody understands the struggles, the goals, all of the work that goes on in the philanthropy world. So I think that still is a work in progress of making sure that everybody can talk to each other.
But that we look at stories as to, what is it that a grant maker is going to learn from this? And what is a nonprofit leader going to learn from it and a fundraiser? So we’re always trying to achieve that balance and make sure that everybody’s communicating as much as possible. That’s a really important thing. The cheerleader and watchdog, I think we, we do believe that philanthropy matters but it only matters when it’s doing what it should be doing, and it’s following the law and making a difference and being accountable, after all, as citizens, we’re all paying for those tax exemptions.
And so one of the things we often do is remind people that everybody has a stake. It may be private philanthropy, but it’s subsidized by taxpayers, and we need to be asking questions about how money is being used, how it’s making a difference. Often that means that it’s getting tremendous results and doing a lot of good, and I think journalists don’t pay enough attention to that. But when it’s not being used for the proper ways, then we need to talk about it and make sure that more people are aware of where some of the holes are in the field or things that can be fixed and aren’t right. I think because we’ve been reporting on this field for so long, we have the expertise that people trust us when we do it, and there’s not a feeling that we’re doing gotcha journalism, and that’s very important to us, that before we go with a critical story, we check our facts as many times as possible, and we’re extremely careful about it.
We’ve never rushed something into publication just because we think, oh, it’s important that there’s this scandal out there. We make sure that we know what’s happening before we publish.
Eric: Yes, I’ve always felt that you’ve been fair, although every so often if I get a call from one of your reporters, I go, oh, this is going to be a tricky one, but then again, that’s what they pay me for. The nonprofit world has changed a lot in the last several years, the pandemic, the racial reckoning, a better understanding about the need to change the way we make decisions, the relationships between foundations and nonprofits, the birth of what some folks call trust-based philanthropy. How are you tracking those changes? And can you grade how philanthropy has been doing in the last couple of years?
Stacy: Yeah, no, it’s a really big question. And, it’s been about 3 years since both of those things happened in a dramatic way. Obviously, race issues have been with the philanthropy world for a long time. In our very first year of publication, we predicted that the fact that foundations weren’t paying enough to race issues were going to be a problem in the future. And I go back and look at that article sometimes, and it has turned out to be very true that there was not enough attention to those things. Even when it was very clear that this country’s demographics were changing. Some of those things got resonance, obviously, in 2020, so three years is a cycle for foundations to usually think about how they do things.
And so we’ve done stories looking at. both the pandemic and the racial reckoning. The data is terrible in this field and so it’s very hard to know from that perspective. But anecdotally, we do see signs that there’s a bit of retreat on some of the grants for racial equity. There’s determination in some quarters, but there also seems to be some pulling back.
I would say the same thing on some of the pieces of trust-based philanthropy. Definitely some foundations have transformed how they give money away. But others have said we don’t need to do that anymore because it’s not an emergency and we’re going to put more restrictions on our grants. So I would say it’s uneven in terms of what’s happening.
So there were some changes that are dramatic, but I don’t think the field is totally changed and I’m not sure it’s sticking.
Eric: That’s really interesting. And not surprising. We have a tendency to be very reactive and then take a step back and if nobody’s looking, you go back to the way that you always did things. Who do you see are the leaders these days, who are the folks that you turn to for advice or to get a special perspective on this field?
Stacy: You can see some of them in our opinion pages, where we attract columnists of various types to help us think through things. You may have seen that Ibu Patel is a new columnist. We’re about to introduce Craig Kennedy as a columnist. Some of the people who have really interesting perspectives on the field, we’re trying to encourage them to write for us regularly. We talked to a lot of academics who are studying the field. And fortunately that area is stronger than it ever was. And when we first started, there weren’t very many people who looked at that. A great thing about the people who are at think tanks and other kinds of places is that they have expertise, but they’re not involved in fundraising or doing any of those kinds of things.
So they can tell it to us straight as to what’s really going on. And really the best thing we can do is talk to the people who are running organizations, really talking to the chief executives and fundraisers about their challenges. And we do a lot of surveys to help understand what’s going on. Are fundraisers burning out and why? And making sure that we can keep a pulse on the field. That’s something that, unlike other professions, there’s not enough of that kind of polling in the field. People just don’t know what’s going on.
So we feel that’s a very important role for us to play.
Eric: All right, I’m going to ask you the question I’m sure you get every day, which is, so MacKenzie Scott has gone kaboom to philanthropy in a sense, in that she’s given away more money in the last three years than whatever the top X number of foundations with no staff, mostly with consultants. And maybe come up with a new model for how you do this. What do, how do you observe that? What do you think the effect her giving and this way of thinking about philanthropy has had on lots of large institutions with hundreds of staff? What are we learning from the McKenzie Scott kaboom?
Stacy: Yeah, I think what’s probably more interesting is what individual donors of great wealth are doing and how they’re doing things differently versus an impact on the big foundations that are well established and really where the money is in some of those individuals. One of the things that we’ve been looking at is what we call the billionaire next door.
There are a lot of unassuming people who you would not know are super rich and they’re thinking about how they give and I think they’re attracted to models like MacKenzie Scott. There’s a donor in Massachusetts who just sprinkles money at college graduation ceremonies and says, I’m giving you this money.
I’m giving each graduate 1000 dollars. And I want you to give half of it away to somebody else. And really spreading that idea that giving and generosity is important. And so I think we’re seeing a real sort of change in how people are thinking about those things, probably influenced by watching somebody like MacKenzie Scott and saying, I don’t necessarily have to give money away the way the Ford or Gates Foundation does it.
Eric: Okay, so I also imagine that you get the occasional phone call from such billionaires next door and maybe some of them say, okay, Stacy, you’ve been following this work for all these years. How should I do this? A) have you ever gotten such a phone call or is this a fantasy of mine? And B) what kind of advice did you or would you give to somebody who is just now starting to figure out how to do their philanthropy?
Stacy: Yeah, unfortunately, I don’t get those calls very much, but I do think a lot about it. And what I try to encourage people to do when they do ask my advice is think about the people who work in this field and what they need to do a great job. There are some foundations that do things like give sabbaticals to nonprofit leaders, that think about the professional training that they need that are really working to improve the workforce and think about the people who power nonprofits, but there aren’t nearly enough of them. It’s easier to say, I care about finding a cure to cancer, but we’re not thinking about who are the people who are doing that work.
And I think it’s vital that we think about that, that we encourage a new generation of people to come into this profession and that we think about it like a profession and the way that law and business and other kinds of things happen. Philanthropists could, for a little amount of money compared to some of the other things that they do in which they spend billions and billions of dollars, make a transformative difference in the lives of the people who are toiling in the non profit field.
And fixing the way the non profit field works in terms of providing good wages, good working conditions. You see a lot of unionization efforts at non profits these days. That’s a sign that things are not working the way they should be. A philanthropist who cares about this sector should want to try to fix that. So that’s what I would tell them to do.
Eric: That’s a great way to go out because I think you’ve left us with a lot to think about and also some really important ways of improving philanthropy and [00:29:00] the nonprofit world that it supports. I really appreciate the work that you’ve done all these years. I’ve been waiting for this conversation for a really long time.
Thank you so much. Thank you for your career and thank you for talking to us today.
Stacy: Thank you for asking me and for all the help that you and the other communications professionals in this field provide. I think that gets ignored too sometimes is we all depend on you to help us do our jobs well. So I appreciate that greatly.
Eric: Yay for all of us. Thank you again, Stacy Palmer.
Stacy: Thank you.
Kirk: And we’re back. How about that? All right. That was Stacy Palmer. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. And it, and I want to come to where you guys got to the end cause at the end, cause that was great. But, but can we start Mr. Brown? What is a paper of record?
Eric: I loved, I loved hearing that phrase in this conversation. What is a paper record? It’s kind of going out of style. I’ll tell you an old story. It’s probably apocryphal, but it’s too good to check. And it was like Louis Mayor, Louis B. Mayor or Irving Thalberg or one of these great, great producers of Hollywood.
It was said, that, that movie stunk. Nobody liked it. And some guy says, no, no, no. The Times liked it. And he said, the New York Times? And the guy says, no. The LA Times and he says, you call that a Times? The Times like it was the paper of record. If the, if it’s in the Chronicle and like, if you live in a city that has a Chronicle, like the San Francisco Chronicle here, but you’re in philanthropy, when you talk about the Chronicle, you talk about Stacy’s Chronicle, right? Like San Francisco Chronicle, you call that a Chronicle, right? It’s the Chronicle of Philanthropy. That’s the paper of record. That’s the answer. That’s my answer to your excellent question. Thank you for asking.
Kirk: And the audacity to launch something that’s going to become the paper of record for something as enormous as philanthropy, and then to achieve that outcome.
And I thought Stacy was quite gracious with you, Eric, that she didn’t flinch when you asked her if she made a dating app.
Eric: When I asked that stupid question. She’s nice about it. Oh, your questions are great. But the Chronicle of Philanthropy is a dating app between those who give money and those who are seeking money.
Kirk: And I was like, actually, there’s something to it. But, but, but if it’s real, if it’s happening, it’s in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. It’s, it’s, it’s a, it sets the tone for our field. Many people read it, you know, it’s, it’s a reference point for all of us. And by the way, can we just say a word of gratitude to, to Elbert Ventura, who’s quite new in the role, right?
Elbert started as the editor in chief, just, I think, in July of 2020, quite recently. So very recent. And, and there’s obviously a lot of change happening at the Chronicle, which we’ll, which we’ll get into in a second. But, um, I loved that first point. And I just, I just wanted to know, Eric, you have, this is, this is a safe space. You got to tell the truth. Have you ever responded to a re journalist question by saying, how dare you call our trustees? How dare you cover us? Which is what the Chronicle of Life begot when they got started.
Eric: No, I never said that to anybody. It’s amazing and doesn’t surprise me in the least because early on, I think I mentioned this when we were having a conversation. When I started at Hewlett, this is only 2003. The folks who were doing my job were like media relations and their job was to make the press go away. It was like media unrelations. And obviously communications has come so far in these two decades, but I think she should take some, some pride in that and a little bit of ownership because the fact that there is this institution that is asking important questions of your work and your field makes you better. It just makes you better at doing what you’re doing. And you then you learn that there are these great opportunities that media and the press and especially the folks who really understand philanthropy can offer to you so that you can use communications to advance your organization’s strategies. And so I think in that sense, she has really pushed our field forward. And she has, I think, probably helped to, to create a professional class of communications folks in philanthropy.
Kirk: Is it possible that she’s actually done more training in the philanthropic field than any other person in history? Because everyone reads it and, and I love that observation. She was like, you know, once we got, once we got started, it went from “don’t call us” to “we don’t want to be left out.” People started reading the articles, got interested in what, and then get interested in what each of those are doing.
It’s like, oh, maybe, maybe we not only should be communicating about stuff, but we should collaborate. And maybe even we should try to change public policy. Which becomes this whole new vista for philanthropy and how it approaches its work. It’s like actually getting into the field of public policy and really trying to change things at that level too.
Eric: It’s incredible, right? It’s transformative. And here’s the thing. People in philanthropy read the Chronicle of Philanthropy. They do. They’re aware of it. If a story runs in there, people read it and many of the audiences for philanthropy are other people in philanthropy because we’re always trying to get other people interested in our ideas. So if we’re funding something, we want somebody else to join us in that funding. And so that becomes an incredible communications tool for philanthropy to be able to communicate with its peers. And as a result, it’s part of your strategy. Whenever you’re doing a philanthropy strategy, you’re going, okay, we’ve got to get these other foundations.
It’s like, I’m calling Stacy Palmer. What do you think the Chronicle do? You think the Chronicle run a story? Everyone’s always thinking about the Chronicle and about Stacy and I don’t know, I’m sure she knows this but her name gets mentioned every 30 seconds in, in every, like, every foundation, the Chronicle of Philanthropy is like the magic answer to the question.
Like, oh, if we get something in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, then the heavens will open and our lives will be better.
Kirk: Well, I gotta say we’ve covered you, you, you’ve covered, we’ve covered a lot of very difficult issues on this podcast. You want to do a conversation that for me was downright chilling. This might’ve been the most scared I’ve ever been listening to a discussion because you started talking about the Chronicle’s beats and what things they cover.
And the notion that the Chronicle of Philanthropy used to have two people full time watching Congress, watching the IRS. And, and there was so little happening, so little happening, that the best journalists, Stacy’s best reporters, would come back and say, give me something else to do, there’s nothing to report on here. And I have to say, you know, I always think about this work from the sympathetic view of the field we know and the work we know that’s happening. But when I hear this conversation about, donor advised funds, and there’s no requirements and there’s no transparency, there’s no regulations requiring sunshine. And I think, okay, wait, where’s the balance of resources in this field? Is it on the side, trying to make things better, or is it on the side, trying to make things worse? And this conversation that the Chronicle of Philanthropy has, it’s just a really unique position to observe this conversation about the lack of interest, let alone regulation, just wholesale disinterest in how money is flowing through our system and our economy and what transparency what governor governance is out there for those resources. I have to tell you, Eric, that was a very interesting, but honestly really kind of scary part of that conversation.
Eric: Well, you’re not wrong. I, although your interview you did around disinformation kind of freaked me out too.
So I can’t say this is the most, this is among the chilling ones, but let’s just say, I say this to foundations all the time, which is that you have no enemies in nature. You don’t, you are, you are virtually unregulated and that’s not a good thing. It, it, it makes us better when we understand that we have, uh, whatever we have important, uh, ideals and, and values to uphold, that we are responsible to the public.
We’re responsible to the tax code, for taking a big tax deduction on things, and frankly, Congress doesn’t give a rat’s patoot in flaming hell, it seems, and I don’t know why that is, maybe there’s just no votes in it, or something, and, and therefore, foundations kind of end up policing themselves, and many of them do it almost to a fault.
They’ll say, Oh, I can’t advocate because then, I don’t know what, Elliot Ness, the G-men are gonna come and break down the door. We’re gonna lose our tax exempt status. It never happens unless for you happen to run a foundation in which you paint a great portrait of yourself and put it in your golf club, but very few foundations are ever done for any of their spending activities.
And they should be. I mean, we need to do a really good job of being stewards of the resources that we have. I’ve been given this tax preferred opportunity to spend and I think it just makes us better like the bad foundations and the bad nonprofits will be weeded out and the good ones will have the opportunity to be effective and it will they’ll do their work better.
But this is an unregulated industry. This is the meatpacking industry in 1917, it is just not regulated. And I know there’s some foundations out there going, thank God. But yeah, don’t ask for it. Yeah. But sorry, they can yell at me for, uh, and I’m sure based after, after people hear this podcast, there will be a March on Washington.
Kirk: Well, Stacy does point it out, right? And you said it too. It’s like, these entities exist because of the, of the tax exemptions that allow them to be created. So there is a real role for public oversight in some way, because these are actually public funds that are being allocated. But so, yeah, it’s, it’s interesting to think about a whole field organized, at least from our experience around protecting, preserving and enhancing the public interest.
And yet this big piece of it, how that intersects with kind of the public’s ability to have transparency and to see what’s happening, how that gets missed. And of course, we’re just talking about the side that we care about. There’s a whole other consideration here, which is the piece that’s actually trying to make things worse.
You know, and we know that there’s, there’s a push and pull there. And that’s, that’s the part too, where that, where I find that lack of transparency, super, super chilling. So, so the Chronicle of Philanthropy does not do gotcha journalism. Stacy was very clear about that. We don’t do gotcha journalism, but they do a lot of investigative journalism, and if you mess up, that’s, like, that’s the oversight.
Eric: Yeah, right. That’s kind of it. That’s where it’s coming. But if you think about it, our, our journalism, which is also kind of sucking wind in a lot of places these days, to no fault of journalists, these large, large papers are closing and all this other stuff. They’re the ones who hold us accountable. And thank, thank goodness for that.
Kirk: And well, and again, it underscores how important the Chronicle from the philanthropy has been and is going to continue to be. And they’re doing this great work, you know, uh, reinvigorating with Elbert. And I loved how Stacy talked about, you know, the skills and capacity experience Elbert brings with all the different things that Chronicle can be doing, boosting its opinion pages, doing more with the digital, different, different ways to attract audience and to affect that change, they become a nonprofit.
So this is our investigative journalism moment. Mr. Brown, this is our gotcha journalism moment because that was a subtle part of this, which, which, by the way, they’re totally right, right? It’s like to do the things they need to do. They need philanthropic resources, but does that desire to attract foundation dollars affect their ability? Will it affect their ability to be that honest broker, arms length reporter of what’s happening in the philanthropic sector? And I thought that was a very interesting, subtle undercurrent in that conversation you were having about that change.
Eric: Well, for the last hundred something odd years, newspapers have been covering their advertisers. And there, there’s always this question about whether there’s a line between editorial and Advertising and we just have to accept that people with integrity will do things with integrity. And that’s, I, I, I don’t know the answer to that. My guess is that they try not to, they really, really try to draw a line between editorial and, and underwriting or non proper foundation funding.
And maybe it’s hard, but you’re right. There’s, if we want these institutions to survive and to persist, they’re going to have to get the money from somewhere.
Kirk: Well, and if there’s a person who can navigate that change is going to be Stacy Palmer. I mean, that’s where it’s like, that’s right. That’s right. You just invested the leadership and you say, hey, we trust you. And again, you’ve earned the right to, to, to have us be here. And so Stacy’s credentials for doing this work so thoughtfully, if the career, the long career, all the work, all the publications, all becoming the paper record for this field, if that wasn’t enough, you get to the end of your conversation and you ask Stacy, what could foundations be doing better? Where can they be focusing? And where does Stacy go? And this is such a nuanced perspective. You could only get here if you had been close to the work and for a long time, she didn’t name an issue. She didn’t name the regulatory stuff that we were just talking about. She said, you know what? You could make a transformative difference in the lives of people working in this field.
If you looked at the fact that it’s people that are making this change happen. And, and I’ll tell you, Eric, that sensibility is hard to come by. I remember I was running an organization and said this to our board. I’m like, the only thing that matters for us are our people. We don’t have a product. We don’t have IP, but we have people. I literally had to train a board for 10 years that that idea mattered. In fact, I even have one of my board members say that like, Oh, you really brought me around. So listen, so, so Stacy points out that one in 10 people, one in 11 work for nonprofits in America. We’ve heard a similar percentage before on this podcast about one in 10 people in America work in food service and the food service industries. And I was thinking as Stacy was talking about, I was like, I wonder if there’s some weird parallels between these 2 sectors, like they’re enormous in terms of the total number of people that they draw, they draw in terms of who’s in the sector. I bet that there’s all sorts of gender and equity stuff that you can start sort of parsing when you actually look at the numbers and who’s in what roles and who gets paid what.
But this notion that people could actually investing in people, that simple intervention could actually be one of the most transformative things that philanthropists do. I don’t think we’ve heard that yet on this podcast, Eric. And I thought that was a really, really cool observation from Stacy.
Eric: Yeah, I totally agree. I don’t, you know, again, this is someone with 30 some odd years of perspective on our field. And actually, it’s quite possible that so many of the nonprofit people are moonlighting in the food service industry. So there’s probably some overlap because they don’t make enough money. This other thing that people if you work for a nonprofit, then you need to take some kind of pay cut because you’re doing good work.
Seems kind of – it’s stupid and silly to me as well. I mean, as though you’re asking people to, to give you this discount because the work is useful. I don’t buy that either. We should pay people a living wage. We should pay people what the market will bear. And we need to figure out how to fund that. But I also think that donors, and we get back to this question about overhead, like, Oh, I just want to be, I want the money to hit the ground, but how does it hit the ground if the people who you’re employing don’t deliver it there?
So we, we have to, I think, take a much more generous view of what it takes to make change and who is going to actually do that work.
Kirk: This beat that we, the people we entrust to take care of us, the people we require to take care of us are the people we least value is such an interesting thread. And, and to see that being raised by somebody who’s been in and around philanthropy for such a long time as that was, that was really, again, that was, that was great to hear.
Well, Eric, my goodness, Stacy Palmer, the Chronicle of Philanthropy. I, I hope that we could actually have Stacy or maybe Elbert back in a year or two and just hear how it’s going, this transition that they’re making, because, you know, and by the way, go to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. You’ll find Stacy there.
You’ll find Stacy’s phone number and email address published on the website. So if you want to reach out to Stacy, it’s right there. We won’t give it here, but. But, you know, we’ll be able to follow this change, but I’d love to see if we could have them back because this is a really exciting time. And again, Stacy, thank you.
Thank you. Thank you for everything you’ve done in creating this seminal institution for all of us. The Chronicle of Philanthropy. What, what, what a great get, Eric.
Eric: Well, thank you. And thank you. Oh, by the way, to the folks who listen to us, I just want to say, I hope you’ve been noticing, but we are, uh, stepping up the pace and we are, we are trying to, uh, we’re trying to do more and better and faster.
And if you’re listening and you like the show, please rate us on Apple podcasts, rate us on wherever you can rate things, tell a friend. This was a fun conversation and I think people deserve to hear it. And it’s fun. Like how often do you get to hear Stacy talk about this work? That’s the kind of thing that we’re trying to do.
So this is kind of a shameless plug for ourselves, but if you’re listening, then you’re listening. So there’s that. I just hope and encourage you. And also just drop us a line. Let us know if you’re listening. It’s always nice to know that there’s folks out there and that, that they’re getting something out of this.
Kirk: Yeah. Thanks for joining us on this journey and Eric, my gosh, thank you for all the work you’ve been doing to put this together because you’re obviously running these interviews and keeping us on a good pace and making stuff happen. So super exciting. And thanks to all who are with us and thanks. Thanks.
Thanks to Stacy Palmer and all of our guests for coming on Let’s Hear It. It’s great to hear you, and Eric, once again, you’ve done it. You’ve done it again. That was a great conversation.
Eric: Thank you, my friend.
Kirk: Okay, everybody. That’s it for this episode. Please let us know if you have any thoughts about what you heard today or people we should have on this show, and that definitely includes yourself. And we’d like to thank…
Eric: Our indefatigable producer, Harper Brown.
Kirk: John Allee, the tuneful and inspiring composer of our theme music, our sponsor, the Lumina Foundation.
Kirk: And please check out Lumina’s terrific podcast, Today’s Students, Tomorrow’s Talent, and you can find that at luminafoundation.org.
Eric: We certainly thank today’s guest, and of course, all of you.
Kirk: And most importantly, thank you, Mr. Brown.
Eric: Oh, no, no, no, no. Thank you, Mr. Brown.
Kirk: Okay, everybody, till next time.