Helping Grantees Assess and Improve

I recognize that I run the risk of sounding like I am always telling foundations what I think they should do. Probably too many of my blog posts and Chronicle of Philanthropy columns have contained the phrase “foundations should.”

I know foundations can’t do everything, and that it’s easy to point the finger at institutions sitting on a lot of resources and ask, “why aren’t you doing this better?,” or, “why aren’t you doing that better?” I don’t want to seem unreasonable – or naïve – in my expectations of what foundations can do.

And yet.

I do think that if foundations want to see nonprofits achieve higher standards of evidence of effectiveness and be better at data collection and analysis that fuels improvement – and our research suggests they do – then they need to support nonprofits in doing that work. I do.

And I do think that if funders want to understand their own performance, in order to improve, then they need to support nonprofits’ efforts to assess and improve. In a report we’ll release in the coming weeks, based on a survey of foundation CEOs, we’ll see yet again that foundation leaders say they want more information about what works, and what doesn’t. But, today, too few funders are supporting their grantees, or others, in developing that information. We know that because we have surveyed grantees on this topic, and our findings are clear.

So that’s why the efforts of Mario Morino, founder of Venture Philanthropy Partners (VPP), and others are so important, and welcome. Morino is hosting an important, now sold out conference in Washington December 3-4 – After the Leap – that will focus on this disconnect.  I am speaking on a panel, moderated by Mike Bailin, former president of Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF), that is titled simply, “Do Funders Get It?”

I think my answer, today, is, “No. most don’t.”

Much attention has been paid to the example of EMCF over the years, and rightly so. EMCF’s focus on supporting youth development organizations that clear a high bar of evidence of efficacy – a strategy that Bailin put in place and that has been continued and expanded upon under his successor, Nancy Roob – is an inspiring example. More recently, EMCF has launched an effort – called PropelNext – to move beyond its small set of core grantees to others that are not as far along in establishing evidence of their effectiveness. EMCF is working to help them “build their capacity and ability to use data.”

But the EMCF model has not been widely emulated by other foundations, though it certainly seems to have contributed to more interest in helping organizations scale.

Why aren’t other funders adopting EMCF’s model? The reasons are likely many, including that it is very difficult to execute well; that some funders interested in spreading good practice want, for understandable reasons, to take a less organizational-growth centered approach and instead focus on spreading good practice among organizations working toward the same goals (which, as this new Bridgespan report makes clear, isn’t easy to do in a way that’s faithful to what has been shown to actually work); that EMCF’s is a model that has been built for human service organizations and isn’t necessarily easily translatable to other program areas, such as the environment; and that many funders focus more on systems and policy change than EMCF has in recent years.

Still, there is hope. There are other, often overlooked examples of foundations investing in nonprofit capacity to assess and improve performance. I would love to see those raised up: one good example is St. Luke’s Foundation in Cleveland, whose CEO Denise Zeman is among the speakers at After the Leap. We at CEP have highlighted others, such as the investments made by the Stuart Foundation in San Francisco in a data infrastructure that benefits a range of organizations working on child welfare in California. (We wrote a case study several years back about Stuart’s efforts.)

And, of course, there is Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which has been investing in understanding what works and what doesn’t – and supporting nonprofits in those efforts – for decade. There are also newer, smaller funders like VPP and others that have taken on the challenge of supporting nonprofit assessment efforts.

But they remain much more the exception than the rule.

Look, I get very much that it’s far, far more difficult to assess performance in our sector than it is to assess performance in the private sector. Many have eloquently described the peculiar challenges of nonprofit assessment, perhaps none so eloquently as Caroline Fiennes in an excellent chapter of her excellent book, It Ain’t What You Give, It’s the Way You Give It. So I won’t recount all the reasons here.

But the degree of difficulty isn’t a reason not to support these efforts. Indeed, it’s quite the opposite. Until foundations really step up and support nonprofits’ data collection, assessment, and improvement, we will not get the best out of our collective efforts.

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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