The consulting firm that billionaires turn to when they give away money

MacKenzie Scott stepped out of the long shadow of her former husband, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, by handing out billions of dollars in grants over the past two years to charities, community colleges, food banks and progressive non-profits led by people of colour.

Advising her was a team of consultants at a firm that is hardly known outside philanthropic circles but highly influential within them: The Bridgespan Group.

Th Bridgespan Group advises the likes of Mackenzie ScottCredit:AP

Spun out of the consulting firm Bain & Company as a nonprofit, Bridgespan is one of a host of groups that arose in the early 2000s as a new wave of giving led by tech billionaires was beginning to crest. Two decades later, the consultants working behind the scenes are more important than ever.

Scott pulled back the curtain a bit in June — when among the 286 groups receiving more than $US2.7 billion ($3.7 billion) in donations were a host of organisations that are basically the plumbing and wiring of the nonprofit world. Among them were the Centre for Effective Philanthropy, Charity Navigator and Bridgespan itself, which said it would use its gift mainly to pursue research meant to benefit the sector as a whole.

“We work with the nonprofits on classic kinds of strategic issues, getting clarity on what they’re trying to do, putting their resources to work,” said Imtiyaz Hussein, who goes by Taz and is a Bridgespan partner who leads the group’s nonprofit advising practice. “I frame the heart of what we try to do as providing decision-making support for organisations.”

Proponents say the advisers make the field more effective. Critics question whether consultants, even at nonprofits with good intentions, are the right solution for the charitable sector.

“The tool kit of the consulting business is based on crunching massive amounts of quantitative data and analysing it. What it’s bad at understanding is human life,” said Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World and who early in his career worked for the consultant McKinsey & Company. “I think these folks, whether they’re well-meaning or not, find it hard to leave their vocation and worldview and basic frameworks at some kind of coat check.”

Bridgespan may not be a household name, but its reach in philanthropic circles is significant. The group advises the biggest names in the field: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation on the philanthropy side, and the YMCA of the USA, the Salvation Army and even the Sesame Workshop on the nonprofit side.

And for donors looking to outsource overhead while still giving responsibly, consultants fill the gap between Jack Dorsey’s spreadsheet of gifts and a full-blown foundation with offices on Fifth Avenue.

“Bridgespan occupies a unique perch in the landscape of professional-services organisations serving foundations and high-net-worth families,” said Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation. Walker, who has worked with Bridgespan since he was with the Abyssinian Development Corporation two decades ago, said no firm had been more influential in the past 20 years.

Bridgespan was started in 2000 by three men with ties to the for-profit management consultant Bain & Company, including Bain’s then-worldwide managing partner Thomas Tierney. The founders received $US1.3 million from the consulting firm and $US5.5 million from a group of foundations to see if a dedicated nonprofit could do a better job than for-profit consultants dabbling in pro bono work.

Imtiyaz Hussein, a partner at the Bridgespan Group, leads its nonprofit advising practice, “providing decision-making support for organisations”, he said.Credit:The New York Times

Bridgespan got its start during an era of “venture philanthropy” and “philanthrocapitalism.” In essence, the billionaires knew best and they were going to bring their vaunted analytic practices to the world of nonprofits. A whole crop of groups came up at around the same time, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, the Centre for Effective Philanthropy and the consultants FSG among them. (All received funding from Scott in her last round of giving.)

Bridgespan itself received a gift from Scott. Bridgespan’s latest tax filing for the year 2020 showed contributions and grants leaping to $US74.7 million from $US12.5 million the year before, nearly doubling the group’s total assets as of the end of last year. Bridgespan said the increase reflected a five-year capital campaign with multiple donors and not just Scott’s grant.

Attitudes toward billionaire philanthropy shifted after the Great Recession, with populists on the left and right more suspicious of the ultra wealthy. Yet, management consulting for philanthropists and non-profits continued to thrive. That is partly because the pie keeps growing.

From 2000 to 2018, assets held by private foundations more than doubled, according to the research group Candid, to $US950 billion from $US421 billion. Total giving tripled over the same period, the most recent for which complete data is available, rising to $US72 billion from $US23 billion, according to Candid, which also received a grant from Scott.

Instead of establishing big foundations, many of the richest Americans now want to use limited-liability companies, such as Laurene Powell-Jobs, and donor-advised funds, which Scott has used for some of her gifts.

“Bridgespan seems exceptionally able and well-disposed to take advantage of the shift from big family foundations to LLCs that don’t want staff but are still giving away a huge sum of money,” said Rob Reich, co-director of the Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University.

Groups such as Bridgespan can also step into the gap and serve as outsourced staff for new foundations finding their footing.

In March, the recently formed Asian American Foundation had just five full-time employees. After the killing of eight people at Atlanta-area spas, six of Asian descent, the group was inundated with pledges and commitments, including millions more from prominent board members including Joseph Tsai, owner of the Brooklyn Nets, and a further $US1 billion committed to their cause by foundations, corporations and individuals in an eight-week period.

Jeff Bradach, one of Bridgespan’s founders, with Willa Seldon, one of the group’s partners, at Bridgespan’s office in San Francisco.Credit…Kelsey McClellan for Credit:The New York Times

Bridgespan’s self-reported diversity figures show two-thirds of the group’s staff are women. White people make up less than half of the overall staff, as well as less than half of those in leadership positions.

Both Walker and Jeff Bradach, one of Bridgespan’s founders, used the word “journey” to describe the group’s embrace of diversity and inclusion as central tenets of the work. Bradach, who was managing partner until October, when he stepped down from the top post, stressed in an interview that this was still a work in progress and that Bridgespan had made mistakes in the past.

While avoiding directly discussing Scott’s giving per company policy, Bradach rejected the notion that nonprofits could work with Bridgespan as a way of getting the attention of the big donors they advise. Bradach said that just 5 per cent of the nonprofits that Bridgespan’s philanthropic clients gave to were also Bridgespan clients.

In that 5 per cent of cases, Bridgespan policy is to tell the donor that it also represents the nonprofit. The notion among nonprofits that they could cozy up to Bridgespan and then receive huge sums from Scott is wrong, Bradach said, and also betrays a misunderstanding of how much sway Bridgespan has over the donors it helps. “It’s not,” he said, “a black box that they’re kind of scratching their head going, ‘I can’t wait to see what comes.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times

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