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Foundation CEOs Seek to Raise the Bar for Themselves, New Report Shows

Date: December 5, 2016

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Media Contact: Ethan McCoy, Senior Writer – Development and Communications: 617-492-0800 x263

Cambridge, MA – Two-thirds of foundation CEOs believe in the potential of foundations to make a significant difference in society, but most do not see foundations taking full advantage of their opportunities for impact, finds a new report released today from the Center for Effective Philanthropy and commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The report also finds reasons for optimism for the future of philanthropy: much of what CEOs see as standing in their way is under their control to change, and they identify a number of ways foundations can get closer to realizing their potential for the future.

The report, titled The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective, captures foundation leaders’ views on challenges and concerns about the changing landscape in which they work, practices they believe to hold the most promise for helping foundations reach their potential, and the most pressing issues that will influence foundation philanthropy in the coming years. Inequality is high on foundation leaders’ list of pressing issues — 65 percent of foundation CEOs CEP interviewed for the study mentioned it. Foundation leaders are sober about their own levels of preparedness to deal effectively with changes that will affect society in the coming decades.

“The data reveal leaders looking in the mirror who are not entirely pleased with what they see,” said Phil Buchanan, president of CEP. “Their concerns suggest they’re asking fundamental questions of themselves about how they can do better. The changed American political climate and uncertainty of the moment makes the discussion of the future of philanthropy that these findings will prompt all the more pressing and important.”

The data indicate where CEOs believe the opportunities for improvement lie. Most CEOs, for example, believe foundations can take greater advantage of their unique role, including their ability to experiment and innovate as well as to collaborate and convene. They also identify several promising practices for increasing foundations’ impact in the coming decades, including 69 percent that point to learning from the experiences of those they are ultimately trying to help, and 67 percent that cite learning from the knowledge or experiences of grantees. Despite receiving lots of attention, practices such as impact investing, divesting endowments from selected industries, and limiting lifespan are not seen by most CEOs as holding major promise, the data reveal.

The report is released today in conjunction with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s 50th anniversary symposium, “From Promise to Progress in the Social Sector.”

“We commissioned this report so that we could learn from, and with, our philanthropic peers on the state of our field,” said Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer. “The problems we seek to solve are more complex than ever, and it’s heartening that so many leaders from different philanthropies agree on steps we can take toward being more effective — such as collaborating more, taking smart risks, and listening more to our grantees and the people we seek to help.”

The report’s findings are based on the perspectives of more than 200 foundation CEOs collected through in-depth interviews and responses to a survey from May to June of this year. “Foundation CEOs who participated in this research were candid in sharing concerns and challenges, as well as ideas for how foundations should change as they look to the future and seek to have greater impact,” said Ellie Buteau, CEP vice president, research, and co-author of the report. “Their awareness and openness will hopefully drive more of the change they believe needs to take place.”

Accompanying the report is a companion publication of reflections on the findings from CEOs of foundations of various sizes, scopes, and missions, including Darren Walker of Ford Foundation, Judy Belk of The California Wellness Foundation, and Kelvin Taketa of the Hawai’i Community Foundation.

“I hope that this research leads to much more conversation among CEOs and more broadly across philanthropy,” writes Carol Larson, president and CEO of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, in her reflection. “As CEOs, our personal drive to learn and improve must be strong and ongoing.”

Download the report here.

About the Center for Effective Philanthropy

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide data and create insight so philanthropic funders can better define, assess, and improve their effectiveness and impact. CEP received initial funding in 2001 and has offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California. For more information on CEP’s work, including its research, publications, programming, assessments, and advisory services, visit

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