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Posts Tagged ‘Aspen Philanthropy Group’

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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Foundation leaders can no longer assume that policymakers share their view of the sector’s role—it is up to these leaders to tell philanthropy’s story in a way that can be appreciated and understood. This was among the conclusions of the members of the Aspen Philanthropy Group in their inaugural meeting last July. It was a key theme that emerged in a concurrent nonprofit sector-wide strategy session led by the Independent Sector in Colorado Springs. And it was a refrain at this year’s Council on Foundations’ Annual Conference.

At a time when state legislators are seeking to shift responsibility for financing social services from the public to the philanthropic sector, the Council legal team called attention instead to the US Congress, where some members have questioned the tax exemptions that foundations enjoy. The team reports that this Congressional sentiment is only shared by a few Members and that calls for change are at a “low simmer.” Nonetheless, according to the Council’s Kelly Shippe Simone and Chatrane Birbal, Congress is expected to consider tax reform measures, including tax exemption, next year.

While that gives nonprofit advocates time to make their case, APG would argue that the issue is not a matter of fending off legislation or of defensive moves more generally. Rather it is a matter of efficacy. Those who seek to advance the public good need to partner and to leverage one another so as to enhance their collective impact. Doing so first requires an understanding of their respective roles. Arguments between the public and philanthropic sectors are an indulgence we cannot afford, not at a time when the resources of both are reduced and public needs have expanded.

—Jane Wales

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