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Posts Tagged ‘Aspen Institute’

A century ago, the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission, the precursor to the Rockefeller Foundation, helped eradicate hookworm in the American South. Today, the ClimateWorks Foundation, financed by a funding collaborative, is helping to catalyze measurable reductions in carbon emissions.

What these efforts have in common, according to venture philanthropist Mario Morino, is a focus on outcomes-based practices that produce “meaningful, measurable, sustainable benefit for those served.” Morino argues in a four-part series of online essays that too many in the sector focus on the how of measurement without enough thought as to what they are measuring and why. Keeping the end goal in sight is key: to help inform efforts  to achieve real social impact, using the right information to guide action.

The Aspen Philanthropy Group (APG), 25 leaders in philanthropy, has come to a similar conclusion. Having identified a lack of alignment around approaches to measurement and evaluation (M&E) among grant-makers and between grant-makers and grant-seekers, the group charged the Aspen Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation with conducting a year long review. The Program found that grant-makers and their grantees tend to gather as much data as possible in search of evidence of impact. This approach has often resulted in expensive evaluations that are onerous for grantees and have often failed to yield the data needed in the time required for informed decision-making. As a result, the data have gone unused. The Aspen program recommended instead a “decision-based” approach to M&E, characterized by:

  • A shared purpose of informing decision-making and enabling continuous learning;
  • A shared expectation that data will be gathered in a timely fashion and in a manner that does not place an undue burden on grantees; and
  • A shared commitment to placing data gathered in the public domain so as to advance field-wide learning.

The Program plans to publish an edited e-volume on the topic, with chapters written by many of the foundation presidents who are Aspen Philanthropy Group members. It will list open source tools for grant-makers developed by expert organizations ranging from McKinsey & Company to Grant-makers for Effective Organizations (GEO), the Foundation Center to FSG Social Impact Advisors and Donor Edge. Most importantly, it will partner with likeminded organizations, donor advisors and donor educators who have relationships of trust with philanthropists who wish to apply M&E principles to their grant-making strategies. The purpose of this consensus-building effort is to move away from evaluations as audits to evaluations as sources of usable knowledge, thus enhancing the efficacy of the sector as a whole.

Morino, of Venture Philanthropy Partners, shares the goal of advancing a norm. His purpose: to take outcomes measurement “from being the nonprofit world’s most anxiety-provoking topic to one of its most powerful forces.” Large, private foundations are natural catalysts, he says. He’s also encouraged by the creation and work of the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation.

His proposal is to create a high-profile, cross-sector coalition to offer the philanthropic equivalent of the technology industry’s “missionary sell” to push for change – “ferreting out, supporting and sharing the results of … early adopters.” He goes so far as to name names, recommending people like Rajat Gupta, formerly of McKinsey & Company; Bridgespan’s Tom Tierney; Michael Bailin, formerly of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation; author/consultant Jim Collins; and the Corporation for National Service’s Steven Goldsmith. He would likely find many other leaders and converts including remarkable grass-roots collaboratives of grantees and their funders in various issue domains, such as Strive or the Cultural Data Project. Each has been successful in setting standards for their field and would add to any consensus building effort. Morino’s purposes, and those of the APG, will be well served by the combination of a bottom-up as well as a top-down effort.

Marino calls on this “Dream Team” to lead a “Doing Good Better” initiative to, among other things, build knowledge about managing to outcomes through an open-source repository of tools, best practices, profiles and the like; provide strategic and tactical help through better recruitment and identification of qualified consultants; and generate greater support from funders of general operating costs, which are needed to develop the necessary technology systems and human processes.

There is a remarkable array of open source tools for strategic philanthropist seeking to measure outcomes, for which a roadmap would be handy. And a normative shift is in the making. A long-time missionary for measuring outcomes, Marino’s voice is essential and his recommendations wise.

–Jane Wales

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Foundation officers often mistakenly seek to apply scientific principles to complex social problems. And, civil society is endangered by an increasing market mentality on the part of new nonprofit leaders, says Stanford University’s Bruce Sievers.

Sievers’ book, Civil Society, Philanthropy and the Fate of the Commons, offers specific steps for philanthropy to improve the way in which it tackles various social problems and enlivens civic life. Sievers argues that efforts to strengthen civil society deserve a central position on the philanthropic agenda since it’s a prerequisite for the achievement of most other philanthropic goals.

For many decades now, Sievers writes, foundations have attempted to apply scientific theory to such social problems as uneven access to public goods, including quality education, affordable health care, a clean environment and opportunities for robust civil engagement. Success has been elusive because of the random nature of human affairs, which runs “counter to the scientific vision of prediction and control.”

Sievers is quick to add that it is useful to employ data when seeking to make informed judgments about grantmaking. His key argument is that getting to a solution of a social problem is difficult, and expectations of perfect solutions or complete results should be tempered by the knowledge that “social problems…are not straightforwardly solvable through the direct application of the techniques of laboratory science”.

While seeking to demonstrate impact is a good thing, it cannot always be achieved. “While it is not unreasonable to expect that [charitable] contributions will yield some evidence of beneficial results,” writes Sievers, “the exaggerated emphasis on metrics in the form of substantive accountability is becoming a driving force in the field, creating unrealizable expectations and a distortion of organizational priorities.” Today’s most pervasive societal problems are those that philanthropy, of all the sectors, should be most adept at tackling. But Sievers says it has limited its ability to do just that by more narrowly focusing programs and promising market-like results.

The solution, Sievers contends, is for foundations to focus on inputs—processes— more than outputs, or results. Foundations should work in true partnership with others, especially those most affected by a problem or proposed solution. And they should guide their work based on practical, local knowledge, not top-down management based on abstract theories.

The Aspen Philanthropy Group, a gathering of foundation leaders, has identified the process of measurement and evaluation—both of foundation strategies and individual grants—as a topic for study by the Aspen Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation. The program has convened a series of working groups of experts in various issue domains to identify broad principles and practices in the M&E space that can lead to the twin goals of continuous learning and informed decision-making. More on this later when the team reports out to the APG in late July.

— Jane Wales

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“Liberia is not a poor country. It is a country that has been managed poorly,” according Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia’s president and Africa’s first female head of state.

Poverty is both a cause and a consequence of violent conflict, which decimates economies, destroys infrastructure, and undermines a state’s capacity to meet basic needs. Yet Sierra Leone and Rwanda have each demonstrated that with the right policies and the right partners, countries can emerge from conflict and achieve positive economic results for their publics. Liberia can be a third example—and wealthy countries, far-sighted investors, and strategic philanthropists alike are betting on the policies of its reform-minded leader.

Undaunted by the problems inherited from 14 years of civil war, Sirleaf’s government undertook a highly inclusive public process to develop its Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). It encompasses policies aimed at integrating former combatants, promoting reconciliation, combating corruption, welcoming investment, and encouraging the growth of civil society. It is a blueprint that has persuaded wealthy countries to provide much-needed debt relief and both private philanthropists and investors to work in close coordination with one another—and with a government they feel they can trust.

I write from Liberia, where I am traveling with 19 philanthropists committed to Liberia’s success. The origins of this trip lie in a 2008 Clinton Global Initiative “commitment” undertaken by Pam Omidyar’s Humanity United, the Global Philanthropy Forum (GPF), the Open Society Institute, the Daphne Foundation, the NoVo Foundation, the McCall-MacBain Foundation, TrustAfrica, and the government of Liberia.

As part of the commitment, the grant-making foundations stepped forward to finance the establishment of a Philanthropy Secretariat within President Sirleaf’s offices, with the mandate to coordinate their investments so as to best support Liberia’s reform agenda. For our part, at the GPF, we agreed to expand the number of “new philanthropists” alert to Liberia’s potential and to test and refine this extraordinary model of partnership between a post-crisis government and a consortium of private donors and investors.

Ultimately, our hope is to be able to demonstrate—to our satisfaction and to other donors seeking to engage—that this model of highly disciplined and collaborative philanthropic engagement can be adapted and made portable to other post-crisis situations. Many of the GPF members who joined the trip are also leaders of The Philanthropy Workshop West or members of the Aspen Institute Society of Fellows. They are strategic philanthropists, discerning, intent on impact—and deeply respectful of local voices.

They recognize that many of the prescriptions contained in Liberia’s poverty reduction strategy would apply to most post-crisis states. At the same time, they are cognizant that Liberia’s history is unique.  Founded by freed American slaves in 1847, it became the first independent republic in Africa. It established a constitution that met the needs of those settlers, but excluded indigenous peoples. The inequities inherent in that formula helped lead to political instability and ultimately a brutal civil war, during which the GDP of the country dropped 90%, poverty rates rose 64%, the physical infrastructure was decimated, the management class was dispersed, 270,000 died, and many hundreds of thousands were displaced. Its young population, 75% of whom are under age 25, has spent more time in battle than in school.

As a group, we will explore whether and how private actors can contribute to the public goals that are designed not only to reverse the damage done, but to build a new Liberia that can be a model for others emerging from crisis.

In particular, we will report to you—and gain your views—on four hurdles ahead: improving security, promoting public health, rehabilitating infrastructure, and strengthening government capacity.

As we report out to you on the status of each of these areas, we will be eager to hear your views on the role that private actors can play and how they can best work in partnership with each other and with Liberia’s government. Barack Obama has often said that government alone cannot solve all of our country’s problems. If this is true for us, it can be no less true for Liberia, where philanthropy and investment have a significant role to play.

– Jane Wales

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Will the Supreme Court ruling giving greater political voice to corporations have the effect of focusing the minds of those funders who support policy advocacy?

Many foundations now appreciate that the impact of policy advocacy is not as hard to measure as once thought. Less clear, according to papers in the most recent issue of the Foundation Review, is how fully foundations appreciate the importance of their support for advocacy as part of a larger social change strategy, and how much investment they are willing to make in its evaluation. The recent Supreme Court ruling allowing corporations to spend more money on political campaigns may change their perspective.

The latest issue of the Foundation Review offers a number of research papers with insights for foundations working in the public policy realm. In particular, one paper from Innovation Network’s Johanna Morariu and Kathleen Brennan notes that three-quarters of advocacy organizations have not evaluated their work, and more than 80 percent of them have never worked with an outside evaluator. What advocacy strategies are appropriate in what contexts? What combinations of organizational capacities are most important? What are the most meaningful interim indicators in the journey from grassroots organizing to sweeping social change? The authors say these and other critical questions can’t truly be answered without greater support from foundations for advocacy evaluation. Morariu and Brennan go on to identify the key qualities of an effective advocacy funder, which include the usual suspects of offering extended grant cycles, support for program evaluation, and general operating support to enable grantees to respond flexibly to changing circumstances.

Another paper in this issue of the Foundation Review offers specific insights for foundations working to influence policy across the U.S. Ann Whitney Breihan of the College of Notre Dame of Maryland focuses on a multi-state program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that has impacted national policies on care for developmentally disabled adults. Among her suggestions: To build momentum for a particular policy, resist a temptation to fund states scattered across the country and instead focus funding in a region. Her study bears out that states are more likely to “follow the pack” in their own region. She also says funders should focus funding in those states that have already demonstrated interest – by spending their own funds – in a particular policy area. They’re more likely to consider further innovation in the area.

In general, philanthropists may be less hesitant about helping to define the voice of the social sector. Noting the success of highly strategic politically conservative foundations, other funders across the political spectrum have come to believe that nonprofits and foundations need to gain a greater voice when it comes to public policy. Many have taken concrete steps to do so by hiring more communications and policy specialists and more frequently collaborating and engaging with politicians and government agencies. As borne out in the Foundation Review, evaluation of these efforts is necessary in order to gauge how effective the current strategies and programs are and what can be done to improve them. With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the need for these steps has become ever more apparent.

For further reading, the book Seen But Not Heard: Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy (published by the Aspen Institute) presents the findings of a multi-year research project called the Strengthening Nonprofit Advocacy Project (SNAP), conducted by OMB Watch, Tufts University, and the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest and offers specific suggestions that nonprofit leaders can take to strengthen their organization’s advocacy work.

-Jane Wales

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In an article yesterday, The Chronicle of Philanthropy confirmed the rumor that Sonal Shah has been named the head of the new White House Office of Social Innovation. The office was created to “promote government efforts to help innovative nonprofit groups and social entrepreneurs expand successful approaches to tackling pressing social problems.” Our CEO & President Jane Wales is quoted in the article on the potential of the new office: “…it has the opportunity to encourage public-private partnerships aimed at addressing some of the toughest problems we face at home and abroad,” and in addition, “the office can take a careful look at U.S. government policies, including tax and regulatory policies, and determine which policies spur innovation, and whether others might needlessly impede innovation.”

Previously the head of global development at Google.org, Sonal is an excellent choice for the position, and we’re looking forward to seeing where she takes it.

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Andrew Wolk has an interesting post on his blog today that stresses the critical need to prioritize data in our efforts to advance a social innovation agenda for the country.  He credits our CEO & President, Jane Wales, for her leadership in advising the planning of the new White House Office of  Social Innovation, and identifies two major data issues that deserve its focus:

1. The “first challenge” is the better use of current data, including how and what we collect

2.  And the second – and far more complex –  challenge is  the need to develop some type of taxonomy that lets us drive performance based on agreed-upon indicators for different social issues.

Update:

Paul Brest has a great post on this from yesterday that goes further in-depth on the need to incorporate standard metrics across the nonprofit world to better measure impact.

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The Chronicle of Philanthropy today published a short piece on plans for a new White House Office of Social Innovation.  Jane Wales, our CEO & President, has been asked to design a series of meetings during the next two years to develop advice on how the office should operate.  She will host these through her work with the Aspen Institute, where she is Vice President and Director of the Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation.  The article quotes Jane saying that the meetings will focus on a “social innovation fund, which will provide aid to nonprofit groups, and a social enterprise fund, which will assist companies that seek to benefit society as well as make a profit.”

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