A Conversation with
In 1964, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation operated from the dining room table of the Packard household. Assets and grants totaled $17,000. Thirty-five years later, that same foundation is one of the largest in the world-courtesy of yearly contributions, the growth of Hewlett-Packard stock and an astronomical bequest from the estate of David Packard, co-founder of the Hewlett-Packard Company. The foundation employs more than 120 staff, last year had approximately $9 billion in assets, and recently announced a 1999 grants budget of $400 million focusing on population, conservation, science and children.
One man has been there managing this metamorphosis for the last 23 years-Colburn S. Wilbur, this year's Distinguished Grantmaker. David Packard himself appointed Wilbur the foundation's first professional staff person in 1976. Wilbur has an MBA from Stanford and a varied background encompassing computer and banking experience, as well as executive positions at the Sierra Club and Hewlett foundations. He has announced his intention to retire this spring.
Yet, something more than resume highlights and outstanding references solidified this union. Cole Wilbur is a quiet man, and I think David Packard heard something in the quiet but reassuring voice speaking directly to him. Cole's steadiness allowed Packard to rest easily after leaving only a brief outline drafted in 1988 to guide the foundation's work.
Cole's gift came clear to me while editing this interview. I knew Cole wasn't quiet because he didn't have anything to say; I chalked it up to personality, demeanor. Was I wrong? There's a secret to success hiding in the thunderous silence. He let it slip unobtrusively and perhaps unknowingly in his advice to new entrepreneurs, saying simply, "Pay attention. Learn from others. Don't assume you know what the answers are before you really have a chance to listen."
What has it been like watching the foundation grow exponentially?
Was donor intent ever an issue?
We basically have the same program areas that we had when we were quite smallwe've just expanded them and have become much more effective. David Packard always intended to leave discretion and flexibility to future boards. He trusted them and realized that organizations need to change over time.
What did you do to help the foundation prepare for the generational transfer in leadership?
Describe some of the more successful grant approaches Packard has decided upon.
What lessons did you learn from the programs you funded that may be considered less successful?
What long-term grants has Packard made that have had some type of measurable impact?
When we first started in our fisheries program, few organizations really worried about or thought of the fact that the fishing fleets are more effective at catching fish than the fish are at reproducing. As the number of fish are being depleted, we have made it one of our goals to increase the number of organizations working on this problem directly or by funding and have been reasonably successful.
We have helped to create a network of neonatal intensive care units throughout the country and internationally, which has helped to improve the quality and efficiency of healthcare for infants. In our population area we are focusing on seven developing countries to assist them in helping women to have just those children they and their families want to have and think they can care for. We have assisted, at their request, Mexican organizations through a series of grants to motivate people, educate teenagers and provide services. During the past few years population projections and actual growth have decreased substantially. The Mexican people themselves are the key factors, but we've played at least a minor role.
What are some of the innovative collaborations this kind of grantmaking must have inspired?
Collaboration with school districts or foreign governments is a smart and productive way to suggest and assist governments to act more effectively.
The Council's top priority is the Communications/Legislative Initiative, which encourages grantmakers to make themselves known to their government representatives. What can you say to inspire foundations to do this from your experience collaborating with government?
We spend time visiting with all of our local, state and federal representatives trying to let them know what this foundation and others in California are trying to accomplish. Every time, we've found them to be most receptive and interested, and even surprised at the scope of it. So it has been very valuable.
There are many different ways that a foundation can stimulate governments to undertake a new program or a new projectsuch as being willing to support research or a model program or an evaluation. And although it can be difficult, it is important to work with federal and local governments, through the Council on Foundations and directly. Recently governments have realized they have fewer funds, and that foundations can be a source of ideas and knowledge, as well as money.
You are known for taking a place on the front lines on controversial issues. What is it that makes you so willing to stick your neck out?
Why do you have such a strong interest in pursuing ethics for the field?
How do you work to make nonprofits think what they're bringing to the table matters just as much as grantmakers?
How do you recommend grantmakers keep a fresh perspective and maintain quality grantmaking?
Most of our staff haven't come from another foundation, so we've improved staff training and found that it has made a large difference in the ability of our staff to think broadly and to have a much greater perspective. We encourage all of our staff that have not worked with a nonprofit to spend at least a week working with one, and we pay them their regular salary.
Your award comes as we celebrate the Council's 50th anniversary. What landmarks in the field have you observed over your nearly 25 years with Packard?
The expectations for results by foundations are growing. There is more collaboration now among foundations, corporations and nonprofits. There has been an increase in entrepreneurial approaches in grantmaking, such as through program related investments. There has been a change in our relationship with government. They are seldom willing to pick up model foundation programs, but are willing to join foundations collaboratively. Foundations are beginning to communicate what they do, and hopefully will continue to improve. Finally, there has been an increase in women and minorities in the field.
Do you see this as a "great" change in the field's diversity?
Although in some ways philanthropy has not changed much, in others it is evolving quickly. Because of the great increase in philanthropy by more foundations of all kinds, there are more diverse approaches. This is valuable; however, we do a very poor job of keeping current with each other's attempts and often make the same mistakes or are not familiar with each other's successes.
How will embracing diversity impact philanthropy?
If you mean diversity as different types of grantmaking, I think that as we attempt to solve problems and seek new ideas, the more diversity the better. However, we need to communicate more effectively how we are doing.
What legacy have David and Lucile Packard left this new crop of up-and-coming entrepreneurs?
What lessons learned would you share with the new entrepreneurs, the new "Packards"?
Set values for the foundation, trustees and staff and stick with these over the long run. Pay attention. Learn from others. Don't assume you know what the answers are before you have a chance to really listen. Get involved in the community and try new approaches.
Looking ahead, what are your predictions for the field in the new millennium?
I think that there will be more results-oriented thinking, especially in new foundations. There will also be a better and continual development of leaders. Fields have a tendency to have a group of leaders all about the same age and then there may be a hiatus. We need to keep building new leadership.
Foundations will become much more capable in their ability to communicate directly and through the media. They also should learn to work more closely with their nonprofit grantees.
Organizational effectiveness of nonprofits is also becoming far more important. Training of foundation staff and board membersas well as nonprofit leaderswill be expected.
There will be better cooperation between foundations, corporations, governments and nonprofits. People will be setting goals to accomplish something beyond individual grants. And there will be more staff diversity in foundations as people begin to realize the real value that such diversity brings to their foundation. Finally, federal, state and local governments will begin to pay more attention to foundationstheir taxes, payouts and granteesand we need to be prepared.
What would you say to the field about foundation accountability and evaluation?
Evaluation is very importantif you're trying to determine what difference your foundation is making. If we are really attempting to change and improve our community and world, "gut feelings" and intuition are not enough. An evaluation allows one to test hypotheses and learn both from mistakes and successes. Foundations should evaluate themselves also. One approach we have taken is to survey grantees and applicants who have not received grants and learn what they think of us.
How would you encourage foundations to increase their level of accountability?
Now that you're retiring from Packard, what are your plans?
Allan R. Clyde is associate editor of Foundation News & Commentary.