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Posts Tagged ‘Foundation Center’

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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Did foundations do enough in the economic recession? Clearly it is too early to say.

But the Philanthropic Collaborative has found reason to crow. Its new preliminary report offers analysis of a limited set of data—a sample of 2,672 grants totaling $472 million made by foundations in response to the crisis between 2008 and 2010.  A full report is due in December, but Responding in Crisis: An Early Analysis of Foundations’ Grantmaking During the Economic Crisis suggests that the majority of foundation grants went to states facing the severest mortgage delinquency problems as well as those encumbered by especially high unemployment rates. Foundation support was based on need: “Foundations responded in a targeted and timely manner, with grants appropriately directed toward communities with the most need,” the report boasts, calling the development “even more exemplary” in light of the fact that the foundations’ own assets took a beating in the recession.

The report’s lead author, Douglas Holtz-Eakin of the American Action Forum and former director of the Congressional Budget Office, served on a May 7 panel discussion at the Hudson Institute, where the Collaborative’s report was officially released. Also on the panel was Aaron Dorfman of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, who called the report too sweeping in claiming success based on a sample that Dorfman said amounted to less than 1 percent of all grants over the period. He also took umbrage with the report’s assertion that foundations have been timely in responding to the crisis. Rather, Dorfman noted that the general grant application process seems as slow and cumbersome as ever, and in a time of economic uncertainty, foundations seem to be taking longer to make grant decisions. He went on to identify five things philanthropy should have done—and ultimately, could still do—to adequately respond to the crisis, from being more flexible in grantmaking to offering more support for advocacy and community organizing.

Actually, all panelists—which also included Steven Lawrence of the Foundation Center—agreed with one audience member, a foundation representative, that foundations are likely to be more skittish about offering multi-year grants as a result of the crisis because such longer commitments limit flexibility. That’s not promising.

The Collaborative’s report indeed may be a case of being too sanguine at a time when society is just emerging from recession. But it does contain useful examples of important work undertaken in times of economic stress. And, from that we may draw lessons.

—Jane Wales

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Hats off to Jean Case, who, like Bill Gates, has come forward to share mistakes made and lessons learned in her recent blog. As two of the biggest names in philanthropy, one could argue that it is easy for them to make admissions of error. After all, who is going to fire them? But their very stature makes then easy targets, and their assets mean that their bets matter.

Philanthropists often prefer anonymity and their giving can be quite personal. But the challenges strategic philanthropists are trying to solve are public ones. Their grantees are expected to be transparent and these foundation leaders are modeling that behavior. Efforts like the Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative can help, but even more so can the words of those philanthropists who dare to—even feel obliged to—share their experiences.

If we all took a page from the book of Bill Gates and Jean Case—and the many Global Philanthropy Forum members who eagerly share errors made—we can make mistakes matter. Each offers a teaching opportunity. A commitment to learning is a distinguishing feature of strategic philanthropy; tales of failure can be the source of its future success.

While acknowledging that crowing about flops remains rare in any sector, let’s celebrate and emulate those who share triumphs and failures.

—Jane Wales

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Some of the best nonprofits have been prevented from growing as large or becoming as capable as they should be. What’s needed, according to Steven Goldberg, a consultant to nonprofits and social entrepreneurs, is a new nonprofit capital market that would take the form of a prediction, or information, market, akin to political polls. In a new book, Billions of Drops in Millions of Buckets: Why Philanthropy Doesn’t Advance Social Progress, Goldberg argues that such a market, while not a silver bullet, would increase social impact by fundamentally restructuring the sector, turning philanthropy from being loyalty-based – guided by fundraising and relationships – to merit-based – guided by performance. The idea of a nonprofit capital market has been mentioned by many thought leaders in the sector, Goldberg acknowledges. Nonetheless, he feels it has not received sufficient attention to date. Such a virtual stock market or “Impact Index” would allow philanthropists to know what various nonprofits accomplish, through evaluation and transparency, and not just what nonprofits are trying to accomplish, through anecdotal reporting. Such data will help make the most promising nonprofits, with the greatest likelihood of “transformative social impact,” stand out from the “weeds,” he writes.

Goldberg is not alone. Most established foundations are making the case for improved impact assessment — and for a decision-making process that is based on objective measures. And most organizations that study or support the sector — including GEO,  FSG, Independent Sector, the Foundation Center and UPenn’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy — have made the case as well. But, we may be better at devising viable metrics than we are at changing behavior. And so Aspen’s program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation will convene thought leaders, practitioners and funders to consider how impact measures and other data can lead to field-wide learning — and changed behavior. Engaging in this workshop series will be members and partners of the Global Philanthropy Forum.

Before detailing his plan for this Impact Index, Goldberg writes about the problems of the current financial structure governing the sector. Traditional fundraising takes too much time and offers too little money, as foundations offer too many small, short-term grants with lots of strings attached. This practice reduces foundations’ risks of failure, he writes – but may also lead to less significant achievement. The sector’s most critical flaw, he says, is the fact that funding is tied to relationships, not performance.

The release of Goldberg’s book is timed to take place when the discussion of metrics and evaluation is taking place in all corners of the sector — but has not yet exhausted us. Superb work has been done and is being undertaken by many organizations on both the local and the national levels. For some, this is the time to take the discussion the last mile, from thought and successful experiment to field-wide change. But, in trying to do so, we might want to bear in mind the resilience of human nature. Both performance and relationships will surely play a role.

–Jane Wales

Vice President the Aspen Institute

President & CEO, The World Affairs Council/ The Global Philanthropy Forum

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