A Passion for Results

Foundation performance assessments. Strategy. Staff critical analysis. Feedback from grantees. Transparency. Continuous improvement. Data.

These words were on the lips of nearly every speaker at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) 2011 conference Better Philanthropy: From Data to Impact.

They can sound like buzzwords, the lingo of business how-to books, bureaucrats’ boilerplate. They’re tools, obviously. But what are they really for?

Results. Their purpose is to turn our passion for results into reality – the results that can make our society, and the world, a better place.

A passion for results is what’s behind every grant, every initiative, and every philanthropic foundation. The reason for the tools of better philanthropy is to get results that matter.  The tools are not about polishing up our processes. They are about getting the results we are most passionate about.

Here’s the reason the tools are so important: Getting the results we’re passionate about requires us to find ways around and through the morass of complexity and uncertainty that has kept others from solving the problems we’re tackling.

If solutions were clear, certain, uncomplicated, and readily available, and the role of our foundations self-evident, life would be easy. It’s not. Uncertainty and complexity permeate pretty much every big issue philanthropy tackles.

Thus the need for tools that give us the facts about how we can get the results we are so passionate about.

The conference’s mantras – foundation performance assessment, feedback loops, strategy, and the rest – provide the facts we need to hack our way through the complexity and the uncertainty.

When this works, it’s great. Better results! Lower dropout rates because a focused strategy helped the grantees target the kids who could benefit from their skillful services; a greener environment because the grantees’ feedback led to right-sizing the grants and access to medical care because the gaps in the foundation’s performance were filled.

When the tools don’t work, then what?

Well, we get discouraged. Maybe we stop using the tools. Or even blame them for the lack of results. It was the lousy strategy. It distracted us from the context, the relationships, and the human struggles of everyday life.

And then the pressure of distribution requirements pushes us to make more grants, tools be damned.

Or – instead of giving in to discouragement – we can recognize that we almost never get it right the first time. Even when you have a good hypothesis you need to try things on the ground and test them, economist Esther Duflo, MIT professor of poverty alleviation, told the CEP conference participants.

Or as Jeff Raikes, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation put it, be agile and keep iterating and use the tools to rally the organization.  In other words, success requires persistence and adaptation. That means staying focused on getting the right facts about results, and adjusting.

So, when the strategy flops, recognize that it didn’t work – and get the facts to build a better strategy.

When your first foundation performance assessment doesn’t illuminate anything, recognize that the lights are still off – and put a brighter flood lamp on the facts. When your grantee feedback is awful, zero in on the bleakest spots and the facts that will help you work with your grantee partners more effectively.

Our passion needs facts about our results. Are we making a difference yet? Have we learned how to work successfully with our grantee partners? Are we reducing poverty yet? Try a solution, and then get the facts to find out what happened.

The brutal facts?

The truth is, facts are friendly, as my boss Christine DeVita, the president of the Wallace Foundation, often says – and they are really, really friendly to people who are passionate about results. No facts mean little chance of results. It’s that simple.

The three i’s that Esther Duflo warned CEP conference attendees about – ideology, ignorance, inertia – are all steamrolled by facts about results. Michael J. Fox told us at the conference that his fame gets him in the door, but his data makes the sale.

The facts keep us going. And they keep us going in the right direction. The facts connect us to the most powerful resources, the most connected people, the innovations that actually work, the experiences that point the way to the solutions and the ineffective partnership relationships that need repairing.

So, what to do when we don’t have the right strategy, when the foundation performance assessment falls flat or when the feedback is bleak?

Get the facts. Because the facts are friendly.

And it’s the alliance between our passion for results and the facts about those results that gives us the best chance we will ever have to benefit society.

Passionate about results? The conference’s message is clear. We should look to our strongest ally: The facts.

Ed Pauly is director of research and evaluation at the Wallace Foundation

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