An interview with Diane Davenport, WG'87, Vice President, Commonwealth Fund.
The Wharton School Alumni directory shows, worldwide, about 270 involved in philanthropic, social, cultural, pastoral, human services, and foundation work. Roughly 20% of those graduated in the last 10 years. Small though this representation may be, alumni often play key roles in their organizations and communities.
In the following interviews, four influential figures in the world of foundations, share their insights. Within moments of meeting Diana Davenport, you concede the inevitable. Her reticence draws you in, her sincerity opens you up, her astute but friendly observations have you nodding your head, and suddenly, you’re a volunteer at the Wharton Club of New York! But it’s OK, because she’ll keep looking after you, long after you’ve signed up. Her title at the WCNY, Vice President of Volunteer Services, as is often true of titles, understates her great contributions to WCNY.
Within moments of meeting Diana Davenport, you concede the inevitable. Her reticence draws you in, her sincerity opens you up, her astute but friendly observations have you nodding your head, and suddenly, you’re a volunteer at the Wharton Club of New York! But it’s OK, because she’ll keep looking after you, long after you’ve signed up. Her title at the WCNY, Vice President of Volunteer Services, as is often true of titles, understates her great contributions to WCNY.
What is a foundation?
Foundations are not-for-profit entities that can be set up as independent private foundations, community foundations or family foundations. They are charged with spending between 5% and 6% of their assets every year to maintain their non-profit status. Foundations operate on a spectrum from purely grant-making organizations to operating foundations (think tanks) and anything in between. Mid-size to larger foundations tend to be professionally staffed with experts in the particular field of philanthropy. I think that foundations bring a long-term perspective to issues in a world where most interests are very short-term. Foundations provide a very important service to society.
Which foundations do you work with?
I work for the Commonwealth Fund. We were created in 1918 by the Harkness family. The Commonwealth Fund has always been involved in improving health. We were involved with school inoculation programs, rural hospitals and training programs for nurses. More recently, we have been very active in research related to improving health systems and access to care in the U.S. and, particularly, for society’s most vulnerable, including low-income people, the uninsured, minority Americans, young children and elderly adults. I also serve on the board of Philanthropy New York which is designed to enhance and increase the ability of organizational and individual philanthropists located in the New York region, whose missions focus on New York, the U.S. and around the globe, to serve the public good. It promotes effective, strategic philanthropy through programs, services and resources, as well as informs and advances public policies that support effective philanthropy and a productive nonprofit sector. It also fosters effective communications about the value of philanthropy and the philanthropic sector to the larger community, and develops a diverse and capable group of future philanthropic leaders.
How did you come to work in the foundation world?
I have always been the engineer on the Swiss train. I like to manage people and make things work efficiently and within budget. I worked in retail when I first graduated, then moved into the nonprofit world. But I’ve always done the same kind of work, and I love it. Foundations happen to be wonderful places to work. The people are well-educated and interesting, and the work is very rewarding.
Are foundations hiring?
Foundations are hiring. Salaries are not high, and there are normally no bonuses, but the benefits are excellent, and as I said before, the work environment could not be better.
How does a Wharton graduate get a job in a foundation?
Become an expert in a particular field that philanthropy addresses, join the investment department, or best of all, get rich and start your own!
What has been the role of women in creating, inspiring and managing foundations?
The Commonwealth Fund was started by a woman, Anna Harkness. There are many successful women active in creating and running foundations. Foundations and nonprofits, in general, have a much higher percentage of women at the top than in the for-profit world.
It seems that all large foundations were created by industrialists or their financiers, such as Wharton, Huntsman, Carnegie, Gates, Rockefeller, Johnson, Pew and Getty. As heavy industry moves to other countries, such as China, has the creation of foundations followed?
Don’t forget the Ford, Hewlett, Packard, Kellogg, Mellon, Kresge, Duke, MacArthur, Moore and Casey Foundations! Foundations in the U.S. are tied to tax law, so I’m not sure whether other countries will create a philanthropic world.
The Harkness House is said to be the most intact of the old mansions on Fifth Avenue. What is it like working in, and managing, this landmark building?
The Harkness House was designed by James Gamble Rogers, and completed in 1908 for Edward and Mary Harkness. This beautiful building reminds us every day of the roots and mission of our foundation. From a very practical perspective, we also have the luxury of avoiding the issues around rental space and the upheaval it causes whenever you are forced to move.
Can you share a recent project that exemplifies the Commonwealth Fund?
A good example of our work is the November 2011 Commonwealth Fund Health Insurance Tracking Survey of Young Adults, an online survey of 1,863 Americans, ages 19 to 29, and their healthcare and health insurance coverage.
The findings of this report supports the Affordable Care Act provision that lets parents keep their children, up to the age of 26, on their family insurance plans. This will add an estimated 6.6 million Americans to the insured ranks in the country.
What is the effect of newer foundations created by high-tech entrepreneurs?
In the past 10 years, a lot of teams from the entrepreneurial or business world have entered the foundation framework. These foundations make small grants with the goal of being incubators of new ideas. They designate their program officers to be portfolio managers. They analyze the risks, failure and success of grants from the initial consideration to long-termlook-backs. There has been a big emphasis on accountability and transparency in the past 10 years.
Is social media having an effect in your domain?
Half our effort goes to generating research, and half goes to communicating the information as widely as possible so that it can have a major and lasting impact. We have a large communications department, and we are deeply into social media.
What habits have helped you be successful in your work?
I work exactly the same way as I always have. I do everything that can be done well in advance so that I have time to fit in surprises. And, more importantly, I love working with people and helping them be the best they can be. I find that immensely rewarding.
What should readers know about Volunteer Services or the WCNY?
I would encourage anyone who has an interest to get involved as a volunteer with the Wharton Club of New York. It’s a great group of people. There are many ways to be involved, and there are many areas that we cover. There’s something for everyone, and if it’s not there yet, you can create it.