Latest CEP research digs into how foundations understand and share what works

Assessing the performance of a foundation is notoriously challenging. How well do foundation leaders believe they understand what is and isn’t working in their efforts? How are they building that understanding? What information are they choosing to share with others?

CEP’s latest research report, Understanding & Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice, seeks to answer those questions. Based on 119 survey responses and in-depth interviews with 41 CEOs of private and community foundations, the study digs into what foundation leaders know about what is and isn’t working in their efforts to achieve their goals. Several key findings emerged from the data.

For example, the report finds that almost two-thirds of foundation CEOs say they understand very or extremely well what is working in their foundation’s overall efforts to achieve its goals, yet fewer than half say they understand very or extremely well what is not working in those efforts. When it comes to sharing knowledge, more than one-third of CEOs say foundations do not share more about what they know is and isn’t working because they are hesitant to share mistakes or failures about programs or strategies that didn’t work.

Accompanying the report is a series of profiles — featuring Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Weingart Foundation, Communities Foundation of Texas, and Impetus-PEF — to further examine what foundations are doing to understand and share their work. These profiles, authored by Lowell Weiss of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors, share stories that may be valuable and relevant for others, bringing to life the data and insights from the report.

“Foundations are taking on complex social and environmental problems, so understanding what is and isn’t working in that work is likewise complex,” said CEP Vice President, Research, Ellie Buteau in a press release. “Understanding what’s working and what isn’t — and learning from the knowledge of peers — can be crucial to creating the greatest positive impact in the areas funders care most about.”

You can learn more about the study and its key findings in the reporting of several media outlets, including Fast CompanyThe Chronicle of Philanthropy, and The NonProfit Times.

The CEP blog has also been a hotbed for discussion on the topic following the report’s release.

  • Buteau provides context for the report in this introductory post, a great place to start before diving into the findings.
  • Yvonne Belanger, director of learning & evaluation at the Barr Foundation, shares three observations and three key takeaways from the report.
  • Jehan Velji and Teresa Power of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation (EMCF) describe what they learned from EMCF’s work as a performance-based investor. “We came to understand that the most important goal of evaluation is not to determine whether a program works or doesn’t work, but to discover how to make a program work better over time,” they write.
  • Janet Camarena, director of transparency initiatives at Foundation Center, digs into several data points in the report and discusses the potential for a culture shift when it comes to foundation learning

Hungry for more? Join our webinar!

In addition to the blog commentary, we’ll also be continuing the conversation on this research through a webinar on Monday, December 3 from 2-3pm EST. In the webinar, Buteau will present data from the report and talk with Weiss about his broader experience studying foundations’ understanding of what works with CEP and with Leap of Reason. Then, Melinda Tuan, managing director at Fund for Shared Insight, will interview Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) President Stephen Heintz about RBF’s work over the years to understand what does and doesn’t work in its efforts, and how they think about what information to share — and how to share it.

This webinar will be a great opportunity to further engage with the data and hear from experts on their experiences. Registration is $35. We hope you’ll join us!

New CEP research finds funders are not as in touch with nonprofits’ needs as they think

In a comprehensive examination of foundations’ efforts to strengthen grantee organizations, leaders, and networks, CEP finds that foundations are not as in touch with nonprofits’ needs as they think they are — and both have a role to play in closing the gap between the support nonprofits need and the support foundations provide. Released earlier this fall, the findings of Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives are based on surveys of both foundation and nonprofit leaders.

In these surveys, we sought to learn more about what support foundations are seeking to provide to help grantees strengthen their organizations. Is that support in line with what grantees really need? How can funders be most helpful in this area?

What did we find? Among the key data points in the study, we found that 95 percent of foundation leaders believe their foundation cares about strengthening the overall health of their grantees, yet only 43 percent of nonprofit CEOs say a majority of their foundation funders care about strengthening the overall health of their organization. When asked about the top three aspects of their organization that need strengthening, nonprofit CEOs most commonly mention fundraising (42 percent), staffing (37 percent), and communications (26 percent).

On the blog, CEP’s Ellie Buteau and Charis Loh describe which of the findings surprised them the most — notably, those that show how power dynamics between funders and nonprofits “are getting in the way of nonprofits having their greatest needs met.”

Several funders also weighed in on the blog with their reactions to the data:

  • Linda Baker, director of organizational effectiveness at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, compares strengthening the capacity of organizations to strengthening its heart and lungs. “While unseen by the outside world, that core strength enables the hands and feet of their work to move faster and stronger,” she writes.
  • Joann Ricci, vice president of organizational effectiveness at the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF), stresses the importance of bringing a “beginner’s mind” to conversations with grantees about how to best meet their needs.
  • Jennifer Wei, organizational effectiveness officer at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, keys in on several ways in which funders can lessen the gap between what funders provide and what nonprofits need, including providing general operating support and laying the groundwork for open and candid conversations.
  • And Lisa Jackson, managing partner at the Imago Dei Fund (IDF), describes IDF’s mission and how strengthening grantee partners is at the heart of meeting the Fund’s goals.

Strong organizations are crucial to foundations’ and nonprofits’ ability to achieve shared goals. We hope the data in this report helps foundations and nonprofits better understand how they can work together to build organizations, leaders, and networks that are well positioned to make a difference.

Don’t dawdle! Early bird registration for the 2019 CEP Conference is almost closed

We’re now in the final weeks of early bird registration for Stronger Philanthropy, the 2019 CEP Conference in Minneapolis-St. Paul next spring. The early bird rate is the lowest registration cost there will be, and since we are expecting the conference to sell out, we highly recommend reserving your seat as soon as possible to ensure you’ll be able to join us!

In short, what can you expect at the conference? This will be a can’t-miss event for foundation executives, trustees, donors, and senior leaders to come together, learn, and return to their organizations with the resources and inspiration to help maximize their effectiveness. Attendees will hear from speakers such as Anand Giridharadas, author of the much-talked about Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the WorldMatthew Desmond, author of the Pulitzer-winning Evicted, and Nancy Giles, the CBS Sunday Morning contributor and comedian known for her blending of humor and social and political commentary, just to name a few (we’re adding to the full list of speakers every day).

There will also be several opportunities for attendees to connect with likeminded peers at exclusive sessions to discuss similar challenges and opportunities you may be facing in your work — and to learn from relevant CEP resources together. Learn more about these sessions — including one for CEP assessment and advisory services users, one for foundation CEOs new to their roles, and one for leaders of new grantmaking entities — here.

You can register for the conference here.

Reserved your place already? Let everyone know by tweeting with the official conference hashtag #CEP2019! If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to contact CEP’s manager, programming and external relations,Ying Tao at or 617-492-0800 x186.

Time is running out to sign up for a CEP assessment in 2019!

If you’re thinking about how to seek honest, actionable feedback from your grantees, staff, donors, or other stakeholders in 2019, act quickly to reserve your spot for a CEP assessment in 2019. Our spring survey window is already full, and there are only a few spots left for the rest of next year. Don’t miss out on the chance to learn from some of your most important partners! Contact CEP’s Austin Long to get the conversation started now.

Giving Done Right: Pre-order the forthcoming book from Phil Buchanan

Giving season is here. But how to give effectively?

You can now pre-order the book that will answer that question! In Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, out next spring, CEP President Phil Buchanan distills lessons learned from 17 years of CEP’s work that can apply to giving of all scales.

Through examples of giving that has transformed lives, along with stories of the people who bring philanthropy to life, Giving Done Right is a practical, inspirational guide to philanthropy. It reminds us of the unique role giving has played in much of the good we take for granted every day in our lives, and it helps us all — from the foundation CEO or program officer to the mega-donor to the everyday check writer — understand what it takes to be an effective giver.

Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation and author of the foreword, says, “Whether you are the leader of a foundation or an individual with limited money to give, this book has something to offer you. If you are looking for on-the-ground, practical advice on how to execute effective philanthropy, regardless of the scale, it will undoubtedly leave you intrigued, informed, and, more than anything, inspired.”

You can pre-order your copy from any number of places, including AmazonBarnes and Noble, and IndieBound. Or take advantage of a time-limited, significant discount and order copies for your staff, board of directors, or others in your network on 800ceoread and bookpal.

Find out more on

CEP Perspectives Across the Web

What does GPS have to do with effective philanthropy? More than you might think. In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, CEP’s Phil Buchanan and Kevin Bolduc describe how, like a good GPS, signals from multiple sources — in foundations’ case, feedback from grantees, staff, fellow funders, and beneficiaries — can help foundations better tell where they are and how to get to where they want to be.

“Foundations can take almost any course of action, but they don’t always have enough input to choose the best direction and stay on course,” Buchanan and Bolduc write. “The good news is that there are at least four, readily available feedback sources — four signals — that can help them hone in on the most effective approaches for achieving impact… Taken together, they can help pinpoint where foundations stand.”

Buchanan also penned a recent op-ed for The Chronicle of Philanthropy in the wake of Michael Bloomberg’s $1.8 billion gift to Johns Hopkins University to ensure that the university remains need-blind in its admissions for the foreseeable future. The op-ed considers the gift in the context of the current atmosphere of criticism and skepticism about big philanthropy. “I’m not suggesting we bow down to big givers,” Buchanan writes. “But the inclination to give should be encouraged and celebrated, not reflexively castigated as, I worry, it increasingly seems to be.”

In Case You Missed It: On the CEP Blog

CEP is in the process of revising our definition of philanthropic effectiveness — and we’re looking for your help. In this postPhil Buchanan and Naomi Orensten share CEP’s revised definition and explain the thought process behind it. Let us know what you think with a comment.

In another post, Buchanan discusses the philanthropic infrastructure landscape, making the case that there is a need for a strong voice in support of the unique role of institutional philanthropy.

Mark Zezza and Maureen Cozine describe the evolution of the New York State Health Foundation’s performance assessment strategy over time, from a place of keeping score to one of measuring progress.

NCRP President and CEO Aaron Dorfman describes the essential need for stakeholder feedback to ensure that the power philanthropic funders wield is bringing out the best in their giving. “Given the variety of tools now available, funders that aren’t interested in getting feedback are running out of excuses,” he writes.

Juan Olivarez, Distinguished Scholar in Residence for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy, takes a deep dive into the data in CEP’s recent report, Nonprofit Diversity Efforts: Current Practices and the Role of Foundations. Olivarez finds takeaways from the data for funders and nonprofits alike, arguing that both must work together to advance diversity in the nonprofit sector.

Jennifer Oldham, Program and Communications Officer at The Healing Trust, shares three non-traditional ways funders can support grantees beyond grantmaking.

The language we use matters. Fund for Shared Insight Managing Director Melinda Tuan discusses the importance of language and word choice in discussing the individuals nonprofits and funders seek to help through their work.

CEP and YouthTruth are hiring!

We’ve recently opened up searches for several positions across our teams and offices:

Learn more about CEP’s mission, vision, and values here. Do any of these roles sound like the right fit for you? Someone you know? Apply or help us spread the word!

Will you consider a year-end donation to CEP?

We hope you’ll consider supporting CEP this year. While earned revenue accounts for about half of CEP’s total revenue, we are dependent on philanthropic support for much of our work. If you believe in CEP’s work, and if it benefits you as you seek to do yours, please consider making a contribution as part of your year-end giving. Supporting CEP means supporting more effective philanthropy.

New Faces at CEP

Josh Innocent has joined CEP’s Cambridge office as executive assistant on the programming and external relations team. Welcome, Josh!