Does Philanthropy Need More MBAs? Yes!

To open the annual Social Impact Exchange Conference on Tuesday in New York City, Kresge Foundationpresident Rip Rapson outlined the vision of the Foundation, its ambitions for Detroit, and the opportunities he sees for funders to act creatively in the face of large social problems. One unintended consequence: he suggested that foundations hire more MBAs. Why?

Innovative financial instruments and public-private collaborations sound well and good. But they are tricky to understand and require a different skill set than traditional grantmaking. Sophisticated financial prowess doesn’t grow overnight, and philanthropy can learn from senior investment professionals, even perhaps hire them.

In addition, Rapson outlined Kresge’s new position as a “seller” of Detroit. Every day the Foundation encourages business formation, attracts top-flight nonprofits, and persuades other funders to prioritize Detroit. On the commerce side, who would know the right incentives to bring in private capital? Maybe an MBA? You bet.

In a culture where business and philanthropy are almost always separated—and often at odds—this kind of reasoning is healing. Philanthropy does need more program officers with financial backgrounds. Best business practices do have a place in philanthropy, whether that is a complex financial vehicle, a new data system, or an audacity of urgency.

We would do well to take Rapson’s advice to the bank, and rethink what personnel we need in order to usher in a new wave of philanthropy in a complex world.

Ashley May is project coordinator for The Philanthropy Roundtable’s Economic Opportunity Breakthrough Group. She lives and works in Washington, DC.