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SAPP Blog Forum: Q&A with MacArthur Foundation Program Officer Deepa Gupta

December 11, 2010

Below is an interview with Deepa Gupta (right), Program Officer in the General Program at the MacArthur Foundation.  Deepa provides a ton of insightful information for donors as well as non profit leaders.  Deepa, thanks for taking the time to talk with us!

You began your career in the private sector.  What drew you to the philanthropic sector?

I have always been engaged with the nonprofit sector even though I have had positions in the private sector. My studies in undergraduate and graduate school were focused on domestic and international health and development.  The distribution between non profit and for profit health care delivery in the United States required that I understand the challenges and opportunities for health care delivery in each sector.  After working at USAID (the US Agency for International Development), I began to understand the complicated infrastructure of NGOs, government and private organizations delivering health and welfare in developing countries.  My intention was always to gain experience in strategy and finance in the private sector and then apply that to social causes – which would most likely return me to a social sector setting.

Philanthropy was not on my list as a career option at this early stage in my career, but as luck would have it a program officer role opened up at MacArthur just as I was looking to make my first move out of the private sector and back into the public sector.  I am glad I made the move.  This role has given me great perspective on the operations and programmatic decision-making of nonprofit organizations that have to be effective in managing their finances, the impact of their programs, and the needs of their constituents (the people they serve, board members, staff members, supporters, etc.) all at the same time.  It’s been invaluable perspective.

What role do you think foundation funding should play in organization’s overall budget and growth?

There are organizations that will always rely on contributed income from individual and institutional donors to do their good work.  Foundations should work with organizations to make sure that the funding provided helps that organization meet its mission and improve the scope of its work.  This might mean scale but it could also mean the depth of the work.  Growth for the sake of growth should not be a philanthropic goal.  Thoughtful growth that increases the impact of an organization’s work and its effectiveness to deliver its services should be the focus.  I also think that foundations should help organizations think about the diversity of their funding base – be it earned or contributed – so that changes to funding mix are not catastrophic to an organization.  This is an especially salient point in this current economic climate in which I have watched many impactful organizations fall down because of a lack of foresight about their financial resources.

What is the best way to make use of a foundation once funding is awarded?

Beyond the funding, one of the most valuable contributions philanthropy can make to any field of work is to allow for an apolitical forum in which to discuss the salient issues addressing a field and bring the right people and organizations together to offer solutions.  The other value a foundation can add is its ability to make connections between organizations within a common field and among organizations that might not otherwise ever intersect.  For example, human rights organizations abroad with community development organizations locally or arts organizations with those doing work in juvenile justice.  As a recipient of foundation awards, take advantage of the networking and content that is generated by a Foundation and suggest possible ways that a Foundation can add value to a field because of its position as an independent entity.  In addition, leverage the brand and identity of your institutional supporters to instill confidence in future and current supporters (individual or institutional).

In the time you’ve been at MacArthur, have you seen an increase in the number of South Asian focused organizations that are awarded funding?

The Foundation supports US- and internationally based organizations led by south Asians and/or focused on south Asian issues through its programs in arts and culture, human rights, and reproductive health.  It does not measure its awards based on socioeconomic indicators, therefore I can’t factually say there has been any change.  I can say there is no correlate increase due to my presence.

What advice would you give to individual South Asian donors based on your experience as a foundation grantmaker?  In other words, how do you think South Asians as individual donors should make their giving decisions based on what you’ve learned while evaluating charities for a living?

I think individual donors should contribute to organizations that are making a difference in causes that are meaningful to them.  As an individual donor and someone with philanthropic experience, I look at an organization’s programs and the evidence of the impact they have in the communities or regions in which they are working.  I find this information in their annual reports and I have called up organizations to talk with people who can tell me more about the organization if I am not already familiar with the leadership or programs.

I also look at the leadership and governance of the organization.  Who is making the decisions or influencing the direction of the work?  What is their experience, their motivation, etc.?  Finally, I look to see what impact my relatively small dollars will have on the cause I am hoping to effect. Organizations are becoming better and better at demonstrating and communicating what $1 will do for an individual or a community and how the group is itself trying to leverage its donations to create more resources or greater impact.  As a program officer, I conduct site visits to visually see the work in action, but as an individual donor you don’t always have that luxury.  As an individual, I rely on my network of trusted professional colleagues and friends who might support an organization to understand how they made their decision to invest in an organization.

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