At last year’s CEP conference in Los Angeles, I presented on the Irvine Foundation’s approach to assessing foundation performance, joined by David Colby from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I think it’s fair to say that David and I were presenting approaches used by our respective foundations that remain works in progress – Irvine’s even more so than RWJF’s given its focus on this area for many more years.
In view of the interest in this topic at the conference, and my own desire to share what we are doing at Irvine in an effort to improve upon it, I appreciate the opportunity offered by CEP to write a series of blog posts on the subject of assessing foundation performance.
I plan to do this in four parts, addressing the following topics:
- Why we developed an approach to foundation performance at Irvine
- What we have found particularly challenging about assessing foundation performance
- How our board has engaged with us on this subject
- Why assessing foundation performance is both important and necessary
In reflecting upon Irvine’s experiences, I hope to stimulate readers’ contributions to deepening our collective understanding of this important subject and to improving our efforts to measure and understand our performance as foundations.
The focus of these blog posts is Irvine’s Annual Performance Report, which informs Irvine’s board about impact in our three program areas and our overall institutional effectiveness. I include links throughout this post and hope readers might take time to scan those related documents.
We developed our current performance assessment framework after a strategic planning process in 2002-2003 that led to our current focus on three grantmaking programs (Arts, California Democracy, and Youth). As we embarked on this new focus, we wanted a plan to assess the foundation’s performance, both within the grantmaking programs, and across the foundation as a whole.
A group of board and staff members worked together for several months and, as part of that, explored best practices in foundation-wide assessment. Two examples that stood out at that time were assessments done by the RWJF and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
From those models and our discussions about what the board wanted to learn about the foundation’s performance, we created a framework that balances an assessment of grantmaking impact with ways to track overall institutional effectiveness, which are the two broad areas that organize Irvine’s approach.
We also felt it was critical to look at our performance through different prisms, so within these two broad areas, we examine specific grantmaking statistics and progress, evaluation results, broader institutional effectiveness beyond the grantmaking programs, and a range of other categories. This framework is the basis for our Annual Performance Report.
The primary audience to date for these Annual Performance Reports has been our board of directors. This focus has enabled us to be clear about the report’s purpose, ensuring that we are providing the information that is most relevant for that audience.
Once we created the first report for the board in 2007, we then published it on our website, as a manifestation of our commitment to transparency and as another model for others to draw upon as they explore their own approaches. Throughout, I have also been interested in the critiques and questions that our approach has generated so that we might improve upon it going forward.
This description of our process for creating Irvine’s Annual Performance Report sounds very straightforward. The reality, of course, is a bit messier, and my next blog post will focus on some of the challenges we’ve experienced and how we have refined our approach based on what we’ve learned.
I’ll conclude with a final, personal observation: We have invested a great deal of time on this subject because I am persuaded that my obligations as CEO include developing an approach to rigorous foundation performance assessment. Given the autonomy that private foundations enjoy, and the occupational risks of complacency and insularity, creating a framework for foundation assessment and then reporting to our board in some regular interval has kept us focused on how we apply our finite resources for greatest impact. That goal has motivated us to date and it remains why we are keenly interested in improving upon and refining our approach to foundation performance assessment.
There are undoubtedly other perspectives, however, including those that might disagree with this premise and/or our approach. I hope you’ll take a few minutes to share your thoughts, and I would especially value any comments or questions that will push us as we continue to grapple with this important work.
Jim Canales is President of the James Irvine Foundation
Disclaimers and Disclosures: The views expressed in the CEP blog by guest bloggers are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.