Measurement, Effectiveness, and the Philanthropy’s Promise Initiative

CEP is pleased to share this guest post from National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy Field Director Sean Dobson.

When the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) and allies launched the Philanthropy’s Promise initiative one year ago this month, 64 grantmakers had joined by making commitments to allocate at least 50 percent of their grantdollars to benefiting marginalized groups and 25 percent towards supporting advocacy, community organizing and civic engagement to address the root causes of social problems. Since then, 61 more funders, including NoVo Foundation, the Cleveland Foundation, and the United Way of New York City, have joined the initiative. Together the signatories’ grantmaking represents almost $3.4 billion in annual giving.

Philanthropy’s Promise stems from the growing body of research showing that grants with the intentional aim of empowering marginalized communities often get foundations better results than private service provision. This finding is especially clear in NCRP’s recent series of reports on place-based as well as issue-specific grantmaking. This research also shows that the impact of advocacy can be measured – as do numerous other studies.

Our place-based series of reports (Grantmaking for Community Impact Project or GCIP) demonstrates the tremendous return on grantdollars invested in policy and civic engagement efforts of nonprofits through research conducted in New Mexico, North Carolina, Minnesota, Los Angeles County, Northwest Region, Pennsylvania, and the Gulf/Midsouth. We measured impact using quantitative and qualitative methods, drawing on the latest advances in advocacy evaluation, organizing outcome measurement, and the positive returns to social capital from civic engagement. Key findings from the seven studies include:

  • 110 organizations in 13 states took in $231 million from foundations and other donors and leveraged it to create $26.6 billion in benefits for communities and taxpayers, often helping some of the most marginalized groups in society.
  • That means every dollar that grantmakers and other donors provided reaped $115 in community benefit.
  • The groups affected hundreds of policies on a broad range of issues. Some efforts led to additional government spending, some saved the government money and made its programs and services more efficient and effective, and others actually helped generate public revenue.
  • The most effective strategies and campaigns involved leadership and mobilization by underserved communities, effective coalitions, use of a racial equity lens, legal advocacy, and electoral engagement.
  • More than 700,000 residents in 13 states – enough people to fill the nation’s seven largest football stadiums at once – were given the opportunity to voice their concerns publicly. Civic engagement and leadership development had ripple effects in the broader community.
  • At least 321 grantmakers, diverse in terms of type and size, supported the work of one or more of the organizations. In the aggregate, they contributed more than three of every four dollars spent on policy engagement and grassroots organizing.

Of course, calculating philanthropic return on investment is not an exact science. But NCRP’s rigorous methodology (see here, p.7 Ff.) gives high confidence that the return was robust indeed.

The seven reports are pithily summarized here.

Other research underlying the Philanthropy’s Promise initiative includes NCRP’s ongoing series of issue-specific reports called “High Impact Strategies for Philanthropy” (HISP).  Research shows that addressing the specific needs of underserved communities (i.e., “targeted universalism”) and supporting policy and civic engagement are two high-impact strategies that make philanthropic dollars more effective. The HISP series looks at four major issue areas that many funders focus on: education, health, arts and culture, and environment and climate. These reports illustrate how the two recommended strategies can help foundations maximize the impact of their grantdollars. As success in these four issue areas, especially the arts and environment, often elude quantification, the HISP reports necessarily offer a more qualitative assessment of effective grantmaking strategies than do the GCIP reports and for that reason the former feature no “return-on-investment” ratios. But they do make a strong case – relying extensively on real case studies – that an intentional focus on empowerment of marginalized communities can generate notable success in all four issues. We hope these reports will spur grantmakers to reflect on the following types of questions:

  • If your foundation aims to promote opera in the U.S., how can you best do that in a country where shrinking audiences are almost entirely white and elderly, where the population will soon be minority-majority, and where government at all levels is slashing funding for the arts?
  • If your foundation aims to protect the environment, do you think philanthropy has been part of the reason why global warming is accelerating and no significant legislation to protect the environment has been enacted in this country in a generation?
  • If your foundation aims to improve U.S. K-12 education, who would be the biggest beneficiaries in the event that our country finally breaks out of the ranks of the mediocre as measured by the OECD – and does your grantmaking seek to give voice to these most underserved populations?

Given the above unrefuted research by NCRP and others about the benefits of empowering marginalized communities, one would expect the bulk of U.S. philanthropy to reflect such strategies. Alas, only 33% of U.S. foundation grantdollars are intentionally targeted to benefit underserved communities defined broadly; and only 14% is invested in civic engagement strategies defined broadly.

Hence the need for Philanthropy’s Promise to highlight and celebrate this effective but all-too-rare kind of grantmaking. We hope the eloquent public statements of the initiative’s growing number of signatories – by showing the diverse values and strategies that can animate this type of philanthropy – will inspire other foundations to ask whether empowerment of marginalized populations can help them, too, leverage scarce resources and better achieve their missions.

Sean Dobson is NCRP’s field director.

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