A Note from CEP President Phil Buchanan:

Welcome to CEP’s late Winter 2014 edition of our newsletter. It’s an intense time at CEP as we work hard on implementation of a new strategic plan, approved by our Board of Directors in December. I hope you enjoy reading about our recent webinar with the CEOs of the Ford, Hewlett, and McKnight foundations – and perusing all the news from CEP. Let me know what you think.

Phil Buchanan



SPOTLIGHT: CEOs of Hewlett, Ford, and McKnight Discuss the Challenges of Making an Impact

How-Far-Have-We-Come-Website-Feature-231x300CEOs from three large foundations reacted to CEP’s report How Far Have We Come? Foundation CEOs on Progress and Impact during a well-attended CEP webinar held earlier this month. Larry Kramer, Kate Wolford, and Darren Walker responded to a summary of the findings from CEP’s Vice President for Research Ellie Buteau in a lively, hard-hitting discussion moderated by CEP President Phil Buchanan.

Buteau highlighted the key findings of CEP’s report, based on a survey of foundation CEOs, noting that CEOs tend not to see significant progress toward the goals they are working to achieve – but see their own foundations’ contributions more positively. She also noted how foundation CEOs more often point to external barriers to impact rather than internal ones.

Buteau said the data lend themselves to multiple interpretations – including that foundation leaders live in a bubble of “positive illusions” or that the issue is more one of communication in which funders are unaware of the achievements of their peers.

Buchanan opened the discussion with the promise there would be no easy answers, simple formulas, or easy checklists. Much of the conversation and many of the questions submitted by the 100 webinar registrants (largely foundation CEOs and senior leaders) focused on the challenges foundations face in working effectively within larger systems – and with other funders, grantees, and other actors.

The foundation leaders were blunt in their critiques of foundations, and of themselves, and clearly shared both a belief in the vital importance of foundations – and the role they can and have played – and a sense that foundations can do better.

“Our Leaders Are Highly Self-Referential”

It is true that there is “little progress being made on the big problems,” said Larry Kramer of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Part of that, said Kramer, is because the problems are so significant, such as global climate change and poverty. But part of the explanation, he argued, is that foundations don’t align their efforts well enough, and that a host of forces pull in the opposite direction.

Adding to this difficulty of working productively together, said Ford Foundation President Darren Walker, is that foundations have “a very hard time embracing complexity.” Compounding the problem further, he said, is “the degree to which we as a sector and our leaders are highly self-referential in our framing of these issues.”

Walker argued that the “incentive structure” for foundation leaders leads to “framing things with your institution at the center of the problem and boards wanting…to know what it is a particular foundation is buying with [its] money.” Walker pointedly called out the challenge of getting beyond three powerful forces in institutional philanthropy: “ego,” “the need for credit,” and the desire for “some sense of individual leadership.”

As a result, Walker argued, despite the “rhetoric and potentially the aspiration of collaboration…as a sector we’re not actually that good at it.” Indeed, “all of the incentives” reward a mentality in which being a leader is emphasized, he suggested.

“Leadership has to embrace the idea of risk and failure and iteration and really be comfortable with that – and it is very hard for that to happen,” Walker said.

A Lightly Held Theory of Change

Kate Wolford of the McKnight Foundation noted that the tendency of humans in general to over-estimate their own contributions is “exacerbated in our case” by the “lack of very obvious feedback loops.” But Wolford pointed to signs of improvement in the CEP report, including CEOs’ perceptions of progress in understanding impact. [CEP also documented increased focus on performance assessment in a 2011 report on foundation performance assessment.] There is, she said, “a stronger commitment and a stronger tool set to at least assess our own performance and our own strategies” today than there has been in the past.

Still, she argued that here, too, the challenge is to move beyond assessing institutional performance in isolation and “to understand our own contributions and priorities within a broader ecosystem” amid the “multiplicity of actors.”

“Let’s be disciplined about our theory of change but hold it lightly,” Wolford said, recounting what she tells her staff, “and  foster a culture of openness to other perspectives and data and insight that cause us to change and adapt our strategies to help move the ecosystem forward.”

Overcoming the Barriers to Shared Assessment

While all three CEOs argued that the focus on assessment and improvement is crucial, Kramer cautioned against treating these efforts “too much like science” in a way that “forces you into narrow categories” at the expense of “long-term relationship-building and long-term collaborations as opposed to a push for the immediate pay-off.” Wolford echoed these concerns, arguing that a “10-year arc” is often needed in pursuing difficult goals and noting that “context really matters” when it comes to assessment. Kramer said he doesn’t think that foundations “consciously withhold” data about performance, but that establishing shared measures is extremely difficult.  “Here, if you ask me, is where the ego issues play the largest role. Different foundations – they have their own language they like to use, they have their own categories they like to use, they have their own processes” and a sense that “this is how we do it.”

Walker agreed and noted that grantees are often frustrated when asked for so many different things by different funders. He called for “greater subordination of our own institutional egos and needs for the greater good – which is hopefully improving knowledge and impact but also being less burdensome to grantees.”

Walker turned the lens on his own foundation, saying “all of these critiques apply to Ford and I would be disingenuous – and insincere and untruthful – if I were to say anything other than that because we have been guilty of some of the worst practices….We have a very long way to go to achieving the kind of external engagement we would want as well as internally in terms of our own culture as a grantmaking institution.”

Avoiding Reductionism

If there was one overarching theme to the discussion, it was the complexity of the work that large foundations do – taking on the issues that have defied easy solutions. Kramer ended with a sentiment that echoed Buchanan’s opening comments.  “We need to avoid a kind of reductionism here. … There is no one answer to any of these things.” What is needed, Kramer argued, is a focus on “constant learning” in order to fuel improvement.

Wolford closed with an unsolicited endorsement of CEP’s Grantee Perception Report (GPR) as one important way funders can gain candid feedback and guard against the bubble of “positive illusions.”

To listen to the webinar in its entirety, order a recording. Proceeds support CEP’s research.



CEP Welcomes Three New Members to Board of Directors

CEP has elected Hilary Pennington, Fay Twersky, and Lynn Perry Wooten to its Board of Directors, effective May 1, 2014.  “Fay, Lynn, and Hilary are each exceptional people who will add an extraordinary breadth of expertise to our board,” said CEP President Phil Buchanan.


Hilary Pennington is the Vice President of the Ford Foundation’s Education, Creativity and Free Expression program. Pennington leads the foundation’s work on school reform in the United States and higher education around the world, next-generation media policy and journalism, and support for arts and culture. She also oversees the foundation’s grantmaking in philanthropy as well as its regional programming in four offices based in Africa and the Middle East. Pennington previously served as director of education, postsecondary success and special initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and president and CEO of Jobs for the Future, a research and policy development organization she co-founded.


ftwerskyFay Twersky
is the director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, where she overseas cross-foundation strategy support, evaluation and organization learning as well as grantmaking in support of organizational effectiveness and a strong philanthropic sector.

Twersky has an extensive background working in program design and evaluation, and has served as an advisor at Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Family Foundation) on issues of strategy, organization and measurement, and as a director and member of the leadership team of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, where she designed and developed their Impact Planning & Improvement division. She was also a founding principal of BTW – Informing Change, a strategic consulting firm, and has been a long-serving member of CEP’s Advisory Board.



Lynn Perry Wooten is Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs and Clinical Associate Professor of Strategy and Management & Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. In her role as Associate Dean of Undergraduate Programs at the Ross School of Business, she is responsible for developing and implementing transformational educational experiences for Ross undergraduate students inside and outside of the classroom through curricular initiatives, academic advising, student life activities, and leadership development. Prior to this role, she was the Co-Director of the Center for Positive Organizational Scholarship at the Ross School of Business.

Lynn’s current research bridges theory and practice and focuses on positive organizing routines, diversity management practices, and crisis leadership. Through her applied research projects, she has worked with many organizations including Whirlpool, Google, General Motors, Michigan Nonprofit Association, Executive Leadership Institute, Trinity Health, Michigan Department of State, and General Dynamics. Also, Lynn is a Scholar-in-Residence at the Council of Michigan Foundations. 

“We are extremely fortunate to welcome these new additions to an already very high functioning Board of Directors,” said Buchanan.  “Fay has been a close colleague over the years, serving as co-founder of CEP’s YouthTruth initiative. Hilary is a widely respected leader in the sector who has experience on both sides of the foundation table. And Lynn brings a deep knowledge and expertise in both change management and marketing and worked with us last year leading a workshop with our assessment tool clients.”

Twersky, Pennington, and Wooten will join a Board of Directors whose other members include: M. Christine DeVita, former president of The Wallace Foundation; Crystal Hayling, principal at C2 Projects; Tiffany Cooper Gueye, CEO of BELL; Kathryn Merchant, president and CEO of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation; Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation; Christy Pichel, president of the Stuart Foundation; Nadya Shmavonian, independent consultant to foundations and nonprofits; Vince Stehle, executive director of Media Impact Funders; and Anne Warhover, president and CEO of the Colorado Health Foundation. Buchanan also serves as a Director.



New Logo and Look for the CEP Website

CEP_square2CEP has updated and redesigned its branding and its website to improve the user experience, taking advantage of new media to make content both more easily digestible and more intuitively accessible for the organization’s growing audience.

The new CEP site, designed and built by CEP’s Senior Graphic Designer Sara Dubois, is more streamlined and dynamic. Visitors can now see a variety of pertinent information right on the homepage – including CEP’s most recent research publications, blog posts, and tweets. Adapting to the changing landscape of web-browsing, the content is now mobile phone and tablet-friendly.

“You should be able to get a better feel of who we are and our organizational culture through more personal photos and friendly design,” said Dubois.

“The new branding enhances CEP’s image by giving it a more memorable and easy-to-glance-at look,” Dubois says. “The block has CEP sitting above the bottom of the square, signifying that CEP aims to be a step above and is stable,” describes Dubois, adding that “the bright and crisp oranges paired with a few muted tones give a friendly, trustworthy and professional feeling to the brand, which is something CEP highlights in its culture.”



New CEP Research to Explore Community Foundation Donor Views

A new CEP research report, to be released in April, will explore community foundation donors’ perceptions. The research draws on 6,086 surveys of 47 community foundation and explores the link between donor satisfaction and future giving as well as what it takes to have satisfied donors. “We believe this piece will be of immediate practical use to community foundation leaders,” said CEP Vice President – Research Ellie Buteau, “and we’re looking forward to sharing it broadly.”



Grace Nicolette Named Director of Marketing & Programming

grace2-320x202Grace Chiang Nicolette to Director of Marketing and Programming. Nicolette, who will assume her new role this summer, has served since 2011 as a Manager on CEP’s Assessment Tools Team, where she led client relationships and spearheaded efforts to increase foundation use of CEP’s tools.

In particular, Nicolette has been the driving force behind the increased use of the Donor Perception Report (DPR), a donor-survey based comparative assessment tool, among community foundations. She has also served since October 2013 as Interim Director of Communications and Programming.

“I could not be more pleased to name Grace to this crucial leadership role at CEP,” said Phil Buchanan, President of CEP. “Grace has proven herself to be among the most effective ambassadors of both our assessment tools and research we have ever had on our staff, and this is a logical progression for her.”

As Director of Marketing and Programming, Nicolette will oversee efforts to raise the profile of CEP’s research insights and assessment tools so they influence more foundations to become more effective. She will oversee CEP’s widely read blog, its social media presence, and planning for its highly regarded biennial conference, working with her colleagues Sara Dubois, Senior Graphic Designer, and Emily Giudice, Coordinator. She will also lead efforts to increase CEP’s programming offerings.

“Grace has made tremendous contributions in her work as a key leader on CEP’s Assessment Tools Team, leading our work with dozens of funders around the country” said Kevin Bolduc, CEP Vice President – Assessment Tools. “Given her depth of understanding of the challenges and successes that funders have every day, it’s such a great thing for CEP to have her to take on the leadership of marketing and programming.”

Prior to joining CEP, Grace co-founded Social Venture Group, a philanthropy advisory firm in Shanghai that identifies investments in high potential nonprofits and social enterprises in China. As a result of her work, the World Economic Forum named her one of its Young Global Leaders in 2011. She remains active on the Board of SVG and also advises numerous foundations and nonprofits on their work in China. Grace has an executive education certificate from Harvard’s Kennedy School and graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania as a Benjamin Franklin Scholar with a BA in Economics and International Relations.



Buchanan on Easy Answers, Competition, and Strategy Myths

CEP President Phil Buchanan challenges assumptions about effective philanthropy in three recent opinion pieces.

On the Stanford Social Innovation Review blog, Buchanan addresses five myths about foundation strategy. “I am a big proponent of more strategic philanthropy, better assessment of effectiveness to fuel learning and improvement, and iteration of strategy. But I have a real problem with poor strategy.”

In his Chronicle of Philanthropy column, Buchanan questions the tendency to see issues of performance in the nonprofit sector through a prism of institutional competition. “Is it in our collective interest for every foundation and major nonprofit to have a strong ‘brand identity’ and reputation as a ‘leader’—or do we in fact need actors playing various roles, including that of follower, to achieve our goals?”

Finally, in the closing essay of the March issue of Alliance magazine, Buchanan takes on the tendency to glom on to simple-sounding solutions that deny complexity and contextual differences. “Let’s reject the easy answers and simple formulas once and for all.”



On the CEP Blog: Inviting Grantees to the Table

CEP’s Grantee Perception Report can be the spark for a new level of candid conversation with grantees, argues CEP Manager – Assessment Tools Austin Long in a recent blog post discussing CEP’s work with the Whitman Institute.

Also on the CEP Blog, Senior Research Analyst Ramya Gopal shared data on foundation leaders’ perceptions of the role of racial diversity of leadership and boards in achieving impact, and views on progress in performance assessment.

Recent guest bloggers on the CEP blog have included Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, Larry Kramer, president of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s president and Fay Twersky, director of Hewlett’s Effective Philanthropy group, Steve Seleznow, president and CEO of the Arizona Community Foundation, Lucy Bernholz, visiting scholar at Stanford University, and Paul Brest, professor at Stanford Law School and former president of the Hewlett Foundation.



Listening to Beneficiaries: Shining a Spotlight on Bullying

In a Boston Globe opinion piece, Phil Buchanan and Marny Sumrall make a powerful plea for schools nationwide to gather student perceptual data, arguing that this data could be vital to effort to combat bullying.

“There is a way to get a clear understanding of the degree of the problem on a school-by-school and district-by-district basis,” Buchanan and Sumrall, who is executive director of YouthTruth, argue. “Regularly conducted, quickly turned around, confidential, third-party student surveys could allow school leaders to understand how many kids feel they are being bullied, and in what ways, and target their responses accordingly.”



CEP on the Road

CEP staff are hitting the road to share research and findings from CEP’s guide for foundation program staff, Working Well With Grantees, which discusses how grantees’ perceptions of foundations are powerfully affected by their relationships with foundation staff.

On March 19th, CEP Assessment Tools Manager Austin Long and CEP Senior Research Analyst Ramya Gopal will share the same research and facilitate discussion at the Grants Managers Network Conference in San Diego, CA.

In April, Phil Buchanan will address questions such as “What should a nonprofit consider in deciding whether to pursue a model of social enterprise? Can social enterprise be used to access the capital markets? What are the risks: ethical, reputational, financial, policy?” when speaking at the Issues in Nonprofit Governance: The New World of Social Enterprise and Implications for the Nonprofit Sector conference in Washington, D.C.