If Progress on Goals is a Glass, It’s Half Empty and Half Full

Today, CEP released a new report on foundation CEOs’ perceptions of progress and barriers to impact. In the coming weeks on this blog, we’ll be posting reactions from leaders in philanthropy. The first post comes from Paul Brest, former President of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and currently Professor Emeritus at Stanford Law School, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Business, and a faculty co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.

If self-awareness is necessary for self-improvement, the CEP report reveals a glass half empty and half full.

While, as the report generously notes, there are other possible explanations for the results, the foundation CEOs’ views of their own work illustrates at least two common judgmental biases:

  • The “above-average,” or Lake Wobegon, effect, where every foundation performs better than its peers.
  • “Egocentric bias,” in which people overestimate their contribution to joint efforts. (In a classic study, when married couples were asked to describe their proportionate contribution to household tasks, the sum exceeded 100 percent.)

These phenomena may flow from self-serving, ego-enhancing, motivations. But they may also simply result from one’s own daily activities coming more readily to mind than the work of others.

Of course, it’s not logically impossible that, despite the lack of progress in achieving their goals, the particular CEOs surveyed contributed disproportionately to what little progress has been made. Nor is it impossible that most CEOs are accurate in reporting that they support grantees’ efforts to collect performance data, while the 70% of grantees who say otherwise are simply mistaken, or perhaps the grantees of other foundations. As someone who until recently was a practitioner of organized philanthropy, however, I sort of doubt it.

But foundation CEOs are just people—though apparently better than average people. So let me move from critique to a simple suggestion for moving forward.

It’s figures 5 and 14 that make the glass at least partly full. They reflect the CEOs’ recognition of the value of acquiring, sharing, and presumably using information about what works and doesn’t work to improve outcomes. How can foundations be encouraged to act on these beliefs?

A good start would be for foundations to publish their answers, program by program, to the five basic questions that Charting Impact asks of nonprofit organizations:

1. What is your organization aiming to accomplish?
2. What are your strategies for making this happen?
3. What are your organization’s capabilities for doing this?
4. How will your organization know if you are making progress?
5. What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?

To these, I would add two more that are specific to foundations:

6. How do you support your grantees in acquiring and using data to measure progress and success?
7. How do you make available to other funders, grantees, and the public at large, knowledge about your own progress and what as worked and not worked for you?

Charting Impact has not been widely adopted in the nonprofit world. My best guess is that this is a result of being overwhelmed with other tasks and just not knowing the answers. Could foundations do better?

Foundations are fiercely independent and notoriously free from peer pressure. The Foundation Center’s Glasspockets initiative asks for some of this data as well as information about other organizational matters. Yet after four years, the Glasspockets “gallery” includes only 54 foundations. Perhaps the CEP report’s helpful discussion questions will provide a new stimulus for foundations to gather and disseminate basic information about their progress and outcomes.


Paul Brest is Former Dean and Professor Emeritus (active) at Stanford Law School, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Business, and a faculty co-director of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. From 2000 to 2012, he was president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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