Vision & Voices: Brad Smith, Foundation Center

Doing good better requires transparency and trust.  

If there is one undisputable truth about the social sector it is this: evolution is unavoidable. The social sector has been an indelible part of civic life, but has often struggled to balance meeting the demands of an ever changing society with sustaining viable organizational infrastructures that offer efficient and effective services.

At the core of this struggle is the issue of trust. Foundation Center was founded during the McCarthy era. It was a dark period for the United States, but the result was a new period in philanthropy committed to accountability, impartiality, fairness, and objectivity. In many ways, the focus on readying Foundation Center for 21st century success has resuscitated the roots of its McCarthy-era beginnings, though in the context of increasingly interconnected social, political, and economic challenges.

There is no one better positioned to take a hard look at where the social sector has been and where it is going than Brad Smith, president of Foundation Center. A product of the social sector, Brad has an extensive career that spanned multiple continents before landing in New York City where he has been the lead executive of Foundation Center since 2008. If you ask him for a simple description, he aptly remarks that “Foundation Center does for philanthropy what Bloomberg does for financial markets”. Foundation Center helps to pull back the curtain on the often obscure world of foundations and grantmaking for the sake of the entire social sector. It does this by encouraging a culture built on exchange, facts, nonpartisanship, and timeless values.

Brad had the formidable task of taking over an organization during the 2008 recession, which tested the mettle of many for-profit and nonprofit organizations. Two years later in 2010, Brad and Foundation Center leadership created a strategic plan with an eye toward 2020. Among many shifts, the 2020 plan has Foundation Center redefining the major players of the social sector. Doing good is no longer done at the institutional level delineated simply between grantmakers and grantseekers, but is being carried out in arenas such as B-corps, social entrepreneurism, impact investing, and crowdfunding. This matters because power and ideas are being redistributed and increasingly democratized, and Foundation Center has to be in all of these spaces interpreting, analyzing, and amplifying this work.

Brad asserts a hard truth when he says, “The world doesn’t care about philanthropy; the world cares about issues. We show how the work of philanthropy is connected to what people care about.” This is not without obstacles. In a time when the definition of information is subjective and innumerable sources of online information are largely controlled by algorithms that create echo chambers rather than communities of informed discourse, there is a need for not only facts, but an appreciation of vetted and reliable data. Moreover, trusted sources have to be able to translate that data into something meaningful. To Brad, that is the key to sector sustainability.

One of the biggest transitions Foundation Center is going through is figuring out how to provide its services in the most efficient way possible. Part of the solution is transforming city offices like the one here in Cleveland into regional hubs that are more networked and flexible. “We see Cleveland as the remaking of a Rust Belt capital,” he said. The transition from Foundation Center Cleveland to Foundation Center Midwest reflects Cleveland’s place in the global economy and its historical place in philanthropy.

This transition in service delivery also includes revitalizing the Funding Information Network, more than 430 public libraries and community organizations throughout the country and the world that offer free access to Foundation Center resources.  “We dubbed 2017 the year of the user,” recalled Brad, “and set out to speak with users to determine what works and what is needed”. The results from these findings showed that access to information online and in-person remains crucial. It also meant rebuilding GrantSpace to better serve organizations and individuals who are seeking resources to fund their efforts.


Another question Foundation Center is constantly asking itself is what does it take to maintain trust? Sitting on a return flight to New York and inspired by several conversations, Brad scribbled out the idea for what is now Glasspockets, Foundation Center’s window into foundations. “It helped create momentum around voluntary transparency, and identified Foundation Center with its roots,” Brad remarked. Foundation Center tries to make it clear what foundations are doing, rather than speak about what they should be doing. In engaging with foundations on their giving and activities, Foundation Center is also in a position to help them pivot perspectives on the way they operate, with the goal of always being clearer, and providing more accurate information.

In a lot of ways the 2020 strategic plan is just coming into fruition but Brad is already looking ahead to 2030, which is the target date for the next plan. Brad observes, “The scale and nature of today’s problems require new ways of engineering organizational structures.” The sector must consider questions around intellectual property. Brad suggests that there are many organizations and individuals coming up with solutions to complex societal problems. Who owns those solutions? How does ownership of the solutions impact relationships and functions? “Building bridges not silos between issue areas will be increasingly important,” Brad sagely forecasts.

The acceleration of technology continues to be one of the sector’s biggest challenges. In the digital age legacy organizations in particular will be challenged to figure out how to operate. This may mean a more decentralized structure, questions of security around data, and how to leverage technological advances to better serve constituencies.

Brad cautions that social sector organizations should not take their public status for granted. The field has to demonstrate its efficacy in order to uphold its end of the social contract. There is much at stake for nonprofits and foundations. News headlines show higher levels of scrutiny and more stringent standards all in an effort to regulate organizations for the protection of the public good, or in some instances, exercise political influence over what they do.

In Brad’s vision, doing good better means using data responsibly and maintaining the public trust. Under his leadership, Foundation Center is well positioned to be a central architect in this pursuit as the purveyor of programs and services designed for the acquisition, distribution, and application of sound data and knowledge in all its forms.

Vision and Voices is a blog series dedicated to exploring important social sector topics through the eyes of its doers and dreamers in honor of Foundation Center Midwest’s 40th anniversary. For more information visit