Our Board’s Perspective on Performance Reporting

In an earlier post on this blog, I pointed out that the audience for the Annual Performance Report is Irvine’s board of directors. As we delivered the fourth of these at our annual board retreat last month, we devoted some time to learning more about the board’s perspectives on the report.

There were two key themes that emerged, related to the value of context, and the appropriate frequency of the report. Regarding context, board members expressed in numerous ways how much they value the contextual information that the report provides.  Two sections stood out in this regard: first, a table that describes how Irvine’s funding compares to other funders in our program areas, and second, a section on program context indicators, where we provide broader indicators related to our programs, such as per capita public spending for the arts across the U.S. or data on high school drop-out rates in California. This latter section is not meant to suggest that our work will necessarily affect those numbers, but rather to expose the board to broader data sets that help contextualize our program work.

The positive reaction to these sections of the report underscores for me how important it is to help our boards gain a deeper understanding of the environment for the Foundation’s activities. We can explain our goals and strategies and describe grants aligned with them, but there will always be a missing piece if the board is not able to contextualize our foundation’s work. The board’s feedback encourages us not only to consider other ways to use the report to provide such context, but also to explore how we can shape other board materials and meetings in ways that expose them to the broader environment for our work.

The second main theme from our board discussion related to timing. The board questioned whether it is possible to report on foundation performance in such a comprehensive way within a 12-month period. My earlier post described the tension between reporting on activities and describing impact and outcomes, and the timing question became a related point. The board encouraged us to consider a more streamlined Annual Performance Report that might be complemented by a comprehensive report that examines a multiyear period. The discussion led us to recognize a potential mismatch in timing between annual reports and longer-term program goals that operate on a three- to five-year timeframe.

The discussion with the board also encouraged us to revisit the question of audience. We developed this performance assessment framework with the board as the primary audience, but now that we are committed to posting these reports on our website, we also need to give further thought to what other audiences might want to learn. With more foundations providing online grants databases and with the broad adoption by foundations of websites as the primary communications tool, traditional annual reports may be less relevant. With all of this in mind, we are considering how we could integrate more elements of the Annual Performance Report to the board into our traditional annual report to the public.

Most of these ideas are still in development, and we have not yet settled on answers. In fact, we are still digesting the board retreat discussion and its implications. I welcome your thoughts on these subjects.

In my final post I will make the case that, various challenges and difficulties notwithstanding, performance assessment is a vital part of being an effective foundation.

Jim Canales is President of the James Irvine Foundation 

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Disclaimers and Disclosures: The views expressed in the CEP blog by guest bloggers are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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