Pursuing Results: What We Hope to Learn in Detroit

Practicing effective philanthropy can sound deceptively simple—simply set clear goals, develop coherent strategies to achieve them, be disciplined about implementing those strategies, and use relevant performance indicators to assess your progress.

But no matter how clear, coherent, and disciplined you are, achieving the results your intended beneficiaries need is a long-term effort. Building relationships with grantees—the people who use your resources to solve complex problems—takes persistence. Developing expert and effective program officers takes time. And there are always external emergencies—such as the collapse of the global economy—and new opportunities—the promise of big data or the lure of impact investing—that make you second guess your strategies.

That’s why we’ve chosen the theme of “pursuing results” for our national conference in Detroit this year. Effective philanthropy, we believe, is above all else an exercise in discipline and patience. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell posits that it takes an individual about 10,000 hours to master a subject. I don’t know how directly that insight applies to an organization, but I’ve often thought in terms of building institutional muscle memory so that things like performance measurement become ingrained habits.

In other words, results don’t just happen; you need to pursue them. Relentlessly.

We won’t have 10,000 hours in Detroit to master any of our topics, but I think we have a fantastic forty-eight hours planned. CEP’s Vice President of Research, Ellie Buteau, PhD, starts the conference with new research from CEP exploring what foundation CEOs say are the facilitators of—and barriers to—impact. Those findings will set the stage for a frank exchange between four foundation presidents about what philanthropy has and hasn’t been able to achieve in Detroit: Carol A. Goss of The Skillman Foundation, Alberto Ibargüen of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Rip Rapson of the Kresge Foundation, and Sterling Speirn of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

No matter the lessons learned from Detroit, I’m sure the CEOs would agree that success depends on your people. During a breakout session, Ellie will explore insights from CEP’s research on how to get the most out of foundation staff by empowering them. She’ll be joined by Tonya Allen from The Skillman Foundation and Diana Davenport from the CommonWealth Fund, both of whose foundations were profiled in CEP’s report for having taken specific steps to empower their staff—and are seeing a payoff.

As I noted earlier, there’s been a lot of attention paid recently to impact investing. But is it the key to impact, just hype, or something in between? Antony Bugg-Levine will talk with CEOs of some of the nation’s largest foundations who have experimented with the approach, including Kathryn E. Merchant of The Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

Creating long-term, systemic change often requires a patient advocacy campaign waged at either the state or federal level (or both). Foundation CEOs who have used a range of approaches to policy engagement will reflect on the challenges and opportunities of this type of philanthropy. You’ll be able to talk with Aaron Dorfman, Executive Director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy; Crystal Hayling, former president & CEO, Blue Shield of California Foundation; and Gara LaMarche, former President & CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies about their experience driving policy change.

Whether your foundation engages in advocacy or not, most funders experience frustration in their efforts to understand their performance and the performance of their grantees. Foundation CEOs say nonprofits should be held to a higher standard of evidence, yet few grantees received support from them to do this work. What do nonprofits really need—and what can funders do to help them? Molly Baldwin, Roca; Mario Morino, Venture Philanthropy Partners; Nadya K. Shmavonian, nonprofit consultant and CEP board member; and Denise Zeman, Saint Luke’s Foundation, will share their insights.

Pursuing results as a foundation means you rely on nonprofits to do the hard work on the ground. Yet funders frequently fail to provide the kind of support that would allow nonprofits to thrive and move beyond the month-to-month existence that can distract them from mission. Antony Bugg-Levine of Nonprofit Finance Fund and David Carrington, independent consultant, will explore how funders can help nonprofits become more sustainable.

Another group of key stakeholders that you need to cultivate over the long haul is your board. But it’s our experience that governance in the foundation world is too often inhibited by a “culture of deference” that diminishes effectiveness. Tough questions are avoided, CEO assessment is not rigorous enough, and board members endure long presentations rather than engaging in meaningful discussion. In a discussion on how to get the most from a foundation board, CEP President Phil Buchanan will be joined by Irvine Foundation CEO Jim Canales, Ford Foundation Board Chair Irene Hirano Inouye, and McKnight Foundation President Kate Wolford to provide the perspectives of those who have served both as a CEO and as a foundation board member.

Pursuing results also depends on monitoring your performance, discovering what does and doesn’t work. Funders and nonprofits often fail to systematically and rigorously collect data on the experiences of those who should matter most: their intended beneficiaries. Yet there are rumblings of a shift, and much to be learned from examples in education and health care—where beneficiary perceptions are increasingly being incorporated into change and improvement efforts. Marny Sumrall of CEP’s YouthTruth and Jim Knickman of New York State Health Foundation will explore these models and ask funders to reflect on how they listen to those they seek to help—and how they might do it better.

The conference will continue to bring in perspectives and expertise from outside philanthropy to energize our thoughts. Bestselling author (Little Bets) and venture capitalist Peter Sims will describe his research on how creative thinkers and doers practice a set of simple but often counterintuitive experimental methods to explore and develop new ideas. Grant Oliphant of the Pittsburgh Foundation will help us explore the implications of Sims’ research for philanthropy, inviting the audience in to the discussion.

We’ll also hear from Harvard Professor Roland Fryer, who has taken a data-based approach to his research on education reform – believing that the keys to closing the “achievement gap” can be identified through data analysis. Fryer will share what he’s learned and the broader implications of his work for organized philanthropy.

Finally, internationally renowned urban revitalization strategist Majora Carter will be our dinner speaker, sharing her perspectives on the challenges and opportunities facing institutional philanthropy.

Our closing plenary focuses on the foundation CEO post. Many foundation CEOs face challenges they did not anticipate, finding the job more challenging – and frustrating – than they expected. Drawing on new research conducted by Fay Twersky, Director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation, this session will feature a candid exchange with former and current CEOs, including Karen Hein, formerly of the William T. Grant Foundation, and Steven J. McCormick, president, Gordon & Betty Moore Foundation.

We’re excited about these sessions—as well as the rest of those on our conference agenda—and hope they enhance your ability to achieve your results. We hope you’ll join us in Detroit.


Mark Russell is the Director of Communications & Programming at CEP. Join the discussion about our upcoming Detroit conference on Twitter using hashtag #CEP13.

2013 Conference, conferences, effective philanthropy, goals, leadership
Previous Post
When “Dependency” is Not a Bad Word
Next Post
Making Evaluation Matter

Related Blog Posts