Before You Go: Robert Eckardt
We caught up with Robert Eckardt, retiring Cleveland Foundation executive vice president, before he wraps up his tenure at the foundation at the end of the month. Bob shared what led him to the philanthropic field as well as advice for new practitioners.
What was your career path to the position you are leaving?
I moved to Cleveland in 1977 to run a project funded by a Cleveland Foundation grant looking at health care needs of the growing elderly population. After five years in Cleveland, I almost moved to Connecticut for a job but was asked to join the staff of the (much smaller in those days) Cleveland Foundation as a program officer to handle grants in the areas of health and aging. I thought I might work there for 4-5 years. However, over the years my roles changed at the foundation with growing levels of responsibility, culminating with my current position as executive vice president. This opportunity for growth kept me at the foundation. So, I have been at the foundation more than 34 years in a variety of roles, but all with significant focus on grantmaking.
What advice would you offer to someone just entering the field?
Philanthropy is a wonderful field, with the opportunity to work with many interesting people on important issues. But there are several dangers as well. The power differential between the applicants and the foundation can be a challenge. It can lead to arrogance on the part of funders, with poor customer service and worse. A second danger is to think that money is the resource in short supply. You learn that managerial talent and the ability to implement funded projects are also resources. This means you need to focus as much on organization capacity and the ability to implement as on the idea. In a way, ideas are much more common than is the ability to actually implement. Finally, you also have walk the fine line between trying to be helpful to your grantees but not muddling in their work and becoming a burden by unrealistic expectations. The grantee always knows the work better.
What would you change if you had a chance for a “do-over?”
Not sure I have a great answer to this question. Of course there were individual grants that did not meet expectations, but if properly structured they become fodder for learning and for improvements in the future. If I could do anything, I would probably devote more resources on the back end of the grants, trying to learn from the successes and failures.
I’m still working to fully define that. I plan to stay in Cleveland and will stay on a number of current boards, both locally and nationally. I am interested in getting more engaged in some of the health and aging issues that animated my early career, but the specifics are still being finalized.
What will you miss (if anything) about your position?
I’ll miss the opportunity to work with so many committed people who are striving to make the community better. Many are working against incredible odds and clearly not for personal enrichment.