11 New Year’s Wishes

Every New Year, we tend to dream of what the next year might bring. In that spirit, here are my wishes for what we’d see in foundationland in my imagined 2014.

Let me emphasize that these are not predictions (I am a bit of a cynic about predictions). These are instead my dreams for institutional philanthropy in 2014. Perhaps I am drunk on the optimism that the turn of the New Year brings – drunk enough to imagine that maybe, just maybe, some of these dreams could come true.

Here we go.

1) All foundations prioritize relationships with grantees as essential to achieving impact. Inspired by pieces like this one by John Esterle of The Whitman Institute and his colleagues, as well as by exemplary peer foundations, an ever increasing number recognize that strong relationships with grantees are essential to achieving their goals. As a new collaborative spirit takes hold, statements like “grantees are just a means to an end” are no longer heard in foundation hallways.

2) False dichotomies are rejected for what they are – false. There is a new acceptance of the fact that it makes little sense to be “against” randomized control trials, nor to promote them, regardless of context. Rather, the right evaluative technique is dependent on the situation. So, too, the common refrain that “passion” and “analysis” are in tension is recognized as utterly spurious: it is, of course, the passionate commitment to outcomes – for people, the environment, and communities – that leads us to do the hard analytical work required to maximize impact.

3) Methodology gets sexy. In 2014, those in foundations increasingly ask, when confronted with a new “finding” or “truth” about what works and what doesn’t, “How do we know?” Questions about generalizability of findings, survey design, sample size, and statistical significance get asked more frequently as foundations become more sophisticated consumers of the information with which they are routinely bombarded. Frequently heard are questions like, “Is that a theoretical framework or a research finding?,” “Does this finding square with past research on this topic?,” and “Is that a large enough sample on which to base that analysis?”

4) Governance gets the attention it deserves – and board agendas focus on the big, important issues. 2014 is the year the standard foundation board agenda – replete with approval of $10,000 grants – gets crumpled up and thrown in the recycling bin. Board time is instead focused on the toughest, most important questions of strategy and performance assessment. The result? More engaged boards and greater impact for the foundations they govern. Staff, too, will benefit from the constructive push-back and ideas their inspired and well-utilized board members provide.

5) Related, foundation boards adopt relevant indicators of foundation effectiveness – against which staff report annually. Based on clear goals and coherent strategies (strategies that are informed by and even shared across myriad organizations rather than belonging to a single institution), these metrics include those tightly connected to desired outcomes as well as indicators of organizational effectiveness where the link may be less direct – such as staff climate. These indicators inform foundation boards in 2014 and beyond as they assess CEO performance.

6) Foundations step up to invest in grantees’ performance assessment efforts. Inspired by the examples of funders like Edna McConnell Clark, Interact for Health (formerly The Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati), Venture Philanthropy Partners, and St. Luke’s Foundation, foundations increasingly recognize that supporting nonprofits’ efforts to measure performance in ways that fuel improvement just makes sense. It’s in everyone’s interest. Foundations demonstrate that recognition with grant support for this work, as well as assistance beyond the grant when that’s helpful.

7) As an element of the above, funders commit to supporting efforts to hear from direct beneficiaries – in order for both grantees and foundations to learn how to do a better job by them. While human service nonprofits often survey intended beneficiaries, too few efforts are rigorous and really lead to meaningful change. Most foundations do not hear in a rigorous way from beneficiaries as part of their performance assessment efforts, as our research has documented. But inspired by a range of promising efforts on the part of nonprofits and foundations, including those in healthcare and in education, 2014 will be the year of listening to those who should matter most.

8) Foundations default to transparency. Rather than closely guarding information, more foundations will do as the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation is seeking to do and start “from a presumption of openness and full transparency,” in the words of Hewlett CEO Larry Kramer. This transparency will not be about transparency for its own sake – simply the publishing of 990-PFs or board charters – it will be transparency that matters, transparency that fuels learning and improvement as foundations and grantees work toward shared goals.

9) The appointment of foundation CEOs with experience in philanthropy becomes a legitimate trend – and the diversity of leadership increases as a result. I hope we see boards at large foundations follow the lead of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Ford Foundation and seriously consider internal candidates for the CEO role based on an increased awareness of the unique challenge of running a foundation. Fact is, experience in philanthropy is helpful, but the majority of large foundation CEOs don’t come into their roles with it. I’d also like to see, in my imagined 2014, the appointment to the foundation CEO role of more executives of on the ground, cash-strapped grantee organizations – leaders who can bring to the foundation CEO role a true empathy for those on the other side of the table. Both these trends could contribute to another one: a more diverse – racially and otherwise – leadership of larger foundations.

10) The media gets smart about big foundations. The New York Times reconsiders its decision not to have a reporter dedicated to the philanthropy beat and transfers Stephanie Strom back into her old role; others, such as the Wall Street Journal and major broadcast and online media, follow suit. Increasingly, the media recognize that philanthropy and the nonprofit sector are different from business and government in ways that matter – and they structure their reporting accordingly. To educate this new cadre of philanthropy reporters, a coalition of academicians, nonprofits, and foundations collaborate on an orientation to philanthropy aimed at rooting reporters in the relevant sector history and arming them with the most pertinent data.

11) Consultants to foundations come clean on their limitations. The past decade and a half has seen a proliferation of consultancies serving foundations and philanthropists. Some are excellent. Others sell formulas and frameworks as panaceas that often don’t work as advertised, turn out to be old wine in a new bottle, or worse, are in direct contradiction with one another (seriously)! But 2014 is the year consultants come clean and we hear statements like this: “We don’t know if this will work for you, but it was helpful to someone else,” “We’re not sure what we did warrants what you are paying for it,” or “We thought this was the best approach but learned it wasn’t. Sorry!”

A fanciful wish list? Yeah, perhaps.

But many of the dreams I list above are already becoming reality, while others admittedly have further to go.

And none are beyond our grasp.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP and a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. You can find him on Twitter @philCEP.

Disclosure: Some of the foundations mentioned are grant supporters or clients of CEP.

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