PEAK Philanthropy: A Hierarchy of Needs Pyramid for Foundation Giving

September 21, 2011 //

By CJ Callen

Abraham Maslow has hit the big time in the world of business – whether you are talking about the industries of articulate, design or hospitality. Recently, I was moved to read Chip Conley’s PEAK: How Great Companies Get their Mojo from Maslow.

This is a great and heartfelt exploration of how Conley translated Maslow into his business context: building and running a hotel business called JDV Hospitality. The book is a powerful reminder of the primacy of relationships. In it, Conley introduces the concept of the “relationship truths” and creates pyramids for each of his company’s key stakeholders (employee, customer, investor) that surface motivations on the three tiers of the “transformation pyramid: survival, success and transformation.

The book was inspiring; Maslow is not without his critics but still there is something in his theory that demands attention. Reading Conley’s book sparked my own playful inquiry into the implications of Maslow theory. I began to wonder: although the title mention “companies” can we substitute “nonprofits” or “foundations”?

I think so.

What might that look like for a foundation? What might it look like for The Whitman Institute with our decidedly different take on the work, i.e., our focus on process and explicit investment in relationship building?

It sounded like a challenging and fun task to try to build a relationship pyramid for a foundation in general and TWI specifically. Granted, all foundations are not alike but there are some common characteristics that are inherent in the nature of the beast that I can use as guides. With that disclaimer, I quickly moved on.

To start, I decided to sort foundation stakeholders into three primary categories: (1) donor or donor proxy (trustee or board member), (2) NGOs (grantees and grant seekers), and (3) the community served. This single pyramid is designed to capture the hierarchy of needs of foundations’ core relationships. As for developing the distinct pyramids for each of the three primary stakeholders, that will be even more challenging (and enlightening) and will need to come later.

Here is how I see the “foundation way” –

As you can see from the diagrams, there is much that we at TWI have in common with our foundation colleagues in terms of the primary relationships that drive our success. However, if you probe deeper into the “why” and “how” of each tier you will find some notable differences. For instance, if I were to draw a pyramid of the TWI tier one, you will find mention of the cooperative way that board and staff members work together, our primacy on creating trust between the board and staff and on lifting multiple and diverse voices in service to our mission. Each time I drill down into the different tiers, I gain greater insight into what lies at the heart of our foundation. What is the interplay between its different primary stakeholders that drives us forward and helps us serve with grace, humility and integrity? I enjoy the opportunity afforded by TWI’s particular application of the hierarchy to model a different way of serving as a foundation trustee.

I invite all my foundation colleagues to join me into this playful inquiry: identify your primary stakeholders and create relationship pyramids for each that captures their baseline motivation for each, need for recognition of their talents and dreams and the “top of the pyramid” inspiration that helps them find deeper meaning in their work. Is this the beginning of some kind of relationships audit? Not quite. All I know is that as I struggle to work on each stakeholder pyramid, I am uncovering basic relationship truths about our work and basic truths about TWI.