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The Commonwealth Fund

February 2012

The Commonwealth Fund The Commonwealth Fund is one of the first major private U.S. foundations to be established by a woman philanthropist and — several decades later — to be led by a woman president, Margaret E. Mahoney, who passed away in December. Based in New York City, the fund is dedicated to promoting a high-performing health care system that achieves better access, improved quality, and greater efficiency, particularly for society's most vulnerable. The fund's current president, Karen Davis, plans to retire at the end of 2012. The Foundation Center asked her:

Question What particular strategies have you found helpful in pursuing the fund's program areas, and what advice would you give to new leaders at other foundations who are striving to acclimate quickly and effectively and to build their leadership legacy?

Answer "Philanthropy is, first and foremost, about caring about people. I have always hearkened back to my time as a 4-H'er when I was young, and oriented my approach to the fund's work around the four Hshead (research), heart (commitment to social progress), hands (talented people and organizations with common concerns), in the service of better health for all. During my time as president, the Commonwealth Fund (TCF) has built its work around the principles established in its early years: a tradition of scientific inquiry coupled with a commitment to social progress; partnership with others who share common concerns; mobilization of talented people — both inside and outside the foundation — to work on important issues; and the innovative use of communications to disseminate its work. I would add that the periodic establishment of independent, external groups, such as our Commission on a High Performance Health System, is a strategy that has enabled us to gather a broad array of perspectives, provided an important oversight role to the fund's research, and enhanced the reach of TCF-supported work.

"My advice to new leaders at other foundations is to: 1) Build strong relationships with your board, and really get to understand nonprofit governance; philanthropy is different from academia, government, and business and requires a different leadership approach. 2) Visit other foundation presidents and borrow as much of their wisdom as you can. Also, establish a good relationship with your predecessor(s), as they are huge fonts of wisdom and can help you avoid early pitfalls. 3) Take time for strategic thinking. This doesn't need to be formal and lengthy, but do understand the four components — the relative strengths of your foundation, your relative weaknesses, opportunities to make a difference, and threats to your ability to be effective, and finally, 4) Always keep in mind the history of your foundation, the donor's intent on establishing it, and the organization's traditions. I have always thought of the fund as a gift from two donors: Anna Harkness, who established it in 1918, and the American people, who have granted our tax-exempt status. So I always think about how we are honoring those legacies."

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