Last month I was in Boston for the Centre on Effective Philanthropy’s 10 year anniversary conference, Better Philanthropy: from data to impact. Lovely city, stimulating conference! Debra recently blogged about CEP’S report on exemplary program officers, which was the basis for a fascinating panel session at the conference. Key note presenters at the conference included Geoff Raikes, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who spoke with Nadya K Shmavonian, CEP board member about the challenges of foundation strategy. Susan Parker has blogged about that and you can also see the full video of the conversation here.
Geoff spoke about a range of issues and made an almost offhand comment about his view of philanthropic dollars as definitely not public money, but private money. The room seemed fine with that, no-one rose up in outraged disagreement, but in a later session David Hunter of Hunter Consulting expressed, rather forcefully, exactly the opposite view, one that we here may be more familiar with. That view was that philanthropic dollars most definitely are tax dollars foregone, and that therefore it is in effect public money. Hence, in David’s view the absolute imperative for assessing the impact of grant making.
Which brings me to my main train of thought. David was a panel contributor on a session entitled Driving Toward Impact: what funders can do to support nonprofits’ performance management. What I heard as the challenges to philanthropy thrown out by David during this session really made the conference for me. He started by saying that we, philanthropy, should be looking more at what we are doing wrong, in terms of support to nonprofits, rather than focusing on what the nonprofits are doing wrong, in terms of their own effectiveness. Moreover there’s a mindset issue among funders regarding their own accountability.
Increasingly philanthropic trusts and foundations are engaged in working with NFPs to improve their capacity. In the US this seems to be particularly the case, where many foundations, even those with relatively modest grant making, seem to have sizable staff, much of whose time is devoted to working directly with NFPs to develop their capacity. In David’s view, many of these foundations are not a good source of advice to NFPs and should stay out of that particular kitchen. Why? Because they lack clear domains of change for their own grantmaking – that is they are not clear about what it is they actually want to achieve as a foundation; they have no clear metrics of success; and while they may be gathering data from their grantees, they are weak on the use of that data.
David spent many years at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which is very clear about what it is it wants to achieve, and places a very strong emphasis on its grantees measuring their performance. This is very clearly expressed on the foundation’s Results page, as follows:
“Since 1999, the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation has concentrated on increasing the number of low-income youth served by programs with proof or persuasive evidence that they help economically disadvantaged young people [my italics] make the transition to healthy, productive, independent adulthood. To accomplish this, the Foundation devotes much of its resources, efforts and time to assisting grantees in building their evidence base.”
In an earlier session David asked a question of a presenter regarding a foundation’s detailed logical framework for a program aiming to strengthen the field in a particular sector. In his question David pointed out that none of the expected outcomes resulting from strategies in the areas of leadership development, organisational strengthening, network building and so on actually referred to changes or improvements in the lives of the people whom the grantee organisations serve.
Good point I thought, and it’s one I’ll be keeping in mind. I guess it’s summed up as the “so what” question: so we’ve supported this organisation to become strong, well managed, well governed and all the things funders value. But what difference is the organisation making in the lives of those with which it works?
Caitriona has referred earlier to the doco “Saving Philanthropy”. This was shown in its entirety at the conference. It too features David Hunter (he gets around) and it speaks to the very question of the difference that programs and organisations make (or not), and the importance of tracking, reflecting and learning.
Someone in the audience during Geoff Raikes’ conversation referred to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as “the fat boy in the canoe”. That may be so, but you know how there’s “one in every crowd”? Well for me David Hunter was that one in the crowd at the CEP conference and I thank him for it. I’ll be thinking about his provocative contribution for some time to come.
Kirsty Allen is a Program Manager with The Myer Foundation and Sidney Myer Fund. Kirsty came to the philanthropic sector in 2007 following nearly ten years working in international development with a focus on women and gender issues. During this time part of her role was to seek funds from philanthropic trusts and foundations and sometimes she was successful.