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How Far Have We Come? Foundation CEOs on Progress and Impact

Date: December 16, 2013

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Media contact: Grace Nicolette, Interim Director of Communications: 617-492-0800 x236

Cambridge, MA—A new research report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) reveals that foundation CEOs have a sober take on overall progress toward key goals, but a more positive view of their own foundations’ contributions. CEOs see the greatest barriers to making more progress as outside their own foundations’ walls.

Just 25 percent of foundation CEOs believe that, overall, a lot of progress has been made by the various organizations working toward the goal to which their foundation is devoting the greatest proportion of its resources. What’s more – over half of the CEOs who responded to the survey said they are only somewhat, or less, confident in their assessment of overall progress.

CEOs have a rosier view of their own foundations’ contribution to the overall progress made towards their primary goal. “Even though most foundation CEOs don’t think a lot of progress has been made on their goals, almost two thirds of them think their foundation has contributed greatly to the progress that’s been made overall,” said CEP Vice President – Research, Ellie Buteau, who co-authored the report. “And though they are quick to offer criticism of foundations in general, most CEOs believe their own foundations are already doing what is most effective for impact.”

The report, How Far Have We Come? Foundation CEOs on Progress and Impact, is based on findings drawn from the responses to a January 2013 survey sent to 472 full-time CEOs leading U.S.-based foundations giving at least $5 million annually in grants. The survey was designed to collect data on CEOs understanding of progress, what’s getting in the way of progress, and what could help them to achieve more impact.

CEP President Phil Buchanan, another co-author of the report, says the reason for the disconnect between foundation CEOs’ grim view of overall progress and their more optimistic assessment of their own Foundations’ contributions is unclear. “It’s hard to know whether Foundation leaders are systematically over-estimating their own successes, which is a common human tendency, or whether the progress is happening, and it’s just not being widely communicated.” According to Buteau, another possibility is that “the challenges these foundations are tackling could be so enormous that even as some successes occur, little progress is being made toward the larger goal.”

Regardless of the discrepancy, the report makes clear that most foundations share an appetite for more information: evidence of what works, what doesn’t, and in what contexts. To get there, CEP’s analysis of the data suggests that leaders of large foundations must take a hard look at themselves and the assessment of their progress.

Says Buchanan, “If CEOs are making significant contributions, or are learning what really works, it is crucial they communicate this information for the field to learn.”



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, and assessment tools, visit



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