Shifting the Course

Kelvin Taketa

This post from Kelvin Taketa, president and CEO of the Hawai’i Community Foundation, is the fifth in a series of eight essays from foundation CEOs reflecting on findings from the CEP research report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in conjunction with its 50th anniversary.

In reading the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s The Future of Foundation Philanthropy report, I can feel my colleagues’ pain. To be handed the resources of a great foundation coupled with the moral imperative to do good in the world is among the best things one can wish for. And then to be faced with how exceedingly difficult it actually can be, it can turn one into a chronic insomniac.

Yet I am inspired by the aspirations of my colleagues in this report. No one is setting a low bar and it seems we share a desire to make a substantive difference no matter what the particular mission may be of each foundation. And given that ambition, we run headlong into the world of systems change where competing instincts such as urgency and patience or rigor and flexibility collide. Focusing on systems change requires a shift in the fundamental ways that foundations have worked for years. No wonder it is hard.

For nearly two decades, I have had the privilege to lead the statewide community foundation in Hawai‘i; a big fish—in fact the largest foundation in the state—in a very small pond. It has given us the platform to launch several major initiatives involving systems change in public education, homelessness, vulnerable families, freshwater security, and government transformation. All of these initiatives have involved multiple stakeholders and funders and have coexisted alongside our more traditional grant programs and donor services. I hope a few observations about our challenges and what we have learned may be helpful to readers of this report.

We have to guard against the desire to define success solely by short-term programmatic results and instead look to build the constellation of key actors and stakeholders. While it is important, especially for funders, to recognize some near-term progress, it is critical to keep your eyes on the prize of longer-term systems change. For example, we convened 25 leaders from the environmental, cultural, agricultural, and governmental sectors (who were often adversaries) to work on a blueprint for freshwater security in the state. As a result, this coalition was able to pass five bills in the state legislature in two years. But the longer-term goal is whether this coalition can continue to prosper and grow and become the means by which increasingly contentious issues can be resolved.

We have also learned to be patient in our efforts to develop stakeholder engagement and shared strategies and goals. Often it can take several years and, while we look to other funders to invest with us in the implementation phase, we are left to fund the early-stage design work on our own. As a community foundation with multiple donor interests and programs, the financial resources and, by extension, the staff time to do this kind of work is limited. So we have to choose carefully before embarking on early due diligence and look to indications of “ripeness” to determine whether the conditions exist that might enable success.

We have to pay attention to the capacity and resilience of all of the key players. Like natural ecosystems, these players are often interdependent and the strength of the whole is reliant on the capacity of each part. In nearly all of our work in these areas, government agencies are a principal means of service delivery, investment, or policy reform. And while foundations have long funded capacity-building efforts in the nonprofit sector, they have rarely provided such funds to public agencies. As we built relationships and trust among government leaders, we came to realize how little discretionary resources they have to conduct strategic planning, develop executive and management skills, redesign moribund processes, or market their services. This realization was a surprise. Just as we believe that we can only achieve great results if we have great organizations to invest in, it became clear that the same needed to be true of key government partners.

In a related area, we have looked to build major initiatives in programs where there is an opportunity to use data to gauge progress against shared goals and to invest in the creation of data systems, analysis, and culture as a tool to help adapt, scale, and innovate. At times, this has meant a direct investment in improving data systems in the public sector or with public information, just as GuideStar is pioneering the use and analysis of IRS 990 data. For example, the State of Hawai‘i Department of Education developed an “early warning system” to identify middle school students who were at risk of not completing high school. We worked with a group of schools with high-risk populations, many of whom rarely looked at the data, and helped them develop a learning community with dashboards which tracked each high-risk student and shared successful strategies with each other. By focusing on these kids and their real-time progress, these schools have seen a substantial turnaround in academic performance and behavior.

As our sights have been set higher, it is a challenge to appropriately define the role of the Foundation. Clearly, we have a widely recognized and valued role as a convener around important community issues. This role has a currency as great as the dollars we invest in the community each year, and we work hard to cultivate trust among nonprofit, community, union, business, and government leaders and institutions. It also requires a different set of skills among the staff at the Foundation to curate these relationships and to facilitate these conversations.

Still, I am mindful of the fact that, in many instances, we have our hands on resources that many would like to access, and the power dynamics are tilted our way. Often donors and other foundations join these efforts because of the encouragement of the Foundation and, along with our own donors and funds, we recognize the fiduciary responsibility we have to make wise investments on their behalf. So we can’t really be a passive participant, and we struggle with the notions of humility like many others in the report.

What has worked best is when we focus on the design of the effort and not to prescribe the outcome. Get the right people to the table, create a process to engender trust, build a shared view, and allow the group to determine the goals and priorities. Foster an atmosphere of continuing commitment, collaboration, and focus.

Without a doubt, the hardest part of the changing paradigm for foundations to make a more substantial difference is cultural. Moving from an environment where strategies and goals are created internally to one that is co-created and shared takes different skills and processes. Working to create a culture that is more about mutual responsibility and less about grantee accountability will mean new agreements and structures. It still requires leadership, but in a different way.

In Hawai‘i, a popular sport involves racing six-person outrigger canoes long distances. The person in front, called the stroke, sets the pace by which all the other paddlers follow that person’s tempo. The stroke is the most visible member of the canoe and, to the uninitiated, appears to be the leader.

The person in the far back is the steersman. Most of the time, the steersman joins in with the rest of the paddlers. But every once in a while, in a deft and nuanced move, he or she dips the paddle to one side of the canoe or the other to alter the direction and determine the course. I’d like to think that foundations can play this role well.

This blog post is one of eight reflections from foundation CEOs to the CEP research report, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective. Download the entire collection of CEO reflections here.

Kelvin Taketa is president and CEO of the Hawai’i Community Foundation. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @HCFHawaii.

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