Staffing a Foundation for Impact

On the CEP blog last week and this week, CEP President Phil Buchanan is discussing, in a series of eight posts, recent critiques of large, staffed foundations and assertions that recently-established, “lean” foundations are paving a promising new path without being saddled by “bureaucracy.” The following is the fifth post in the series. To make sure you don’t miss a single one, subscribe to the CEP blog and get each post in your inbox as soon as it goes live.

In my last post, I noted that many seem to believe there is one silver bullet, one superior model for philanthropy. For example, one critic of foundations suggests that newer donors and younger foundations have found the answer in providing fewer, larger general operating support grants to “best in class organizations.” This can be done efficiently, the argument goes, with very few staff.

Maybe sometimes, in some situations. But this isn’t quite the right approach in many contexts.

Let’s look at a real-world example: the Wilburforce Foundation, in Seattle, which is focused on the conservation of wildlife and wildlands. Many of Wilburforce’s grantees are concentrated on particular geographic areas and are funded because they’re best positioned — both geographically and in terms of their community connections — to do the work they do. They may not be “best in class” always, at least not at the start, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not the right grantees for Wilburforce as it pursues its goals.

Frequently, Wilburforce’s grantees need support to achieve higher levels of effectiveness, which the Foundation provides. Wilburforce gives an unusually high proportion of its grantees the kind of intensive beyond-the-grant assistance that our research has shown is correlated with more positive perceptions of impact on grantees’ organizations.

Founded in 1991, Wilburforce has excelled consistently in the eyes of its grantees, receiving strikingly high ratings across many dimensions of CEP’s Grantee Perception Report® (GPR), which the Foundation has made public. It is, for example, among the very highest ranked funders among the hundreds whose grantees we have surveyed on dimensions such as “impact on grantees fields,” “understanding of grantees fields,” “advancement of knowledge in grantees fields,” “influence on public policy in grantees fields,” “approachability when a problem arises,” “fairness of treatment,” and “responsiveness.”

Wilburforce’s model is staff-intensive because it depends on relationships.  “At the very basic level, solid relationships with grantees are critically important because grantees are a very good source of information for us,” explains Paul Beaudet, Wilburforce’s associate director, in a Q&A in this CEP report. (Disclosure: In addition to being a client, Wilburforce provides grant support to CEP of $5,000 annually.)

“(Grantees) are the ones doing the on-the-ground work,” Beaudet says. “They’re likely to have a much more nuanced and deeper understanding of the context for the work that needs to be done in the particular places that we care about. If we have high-quality, long-term, trust-based relationships with grantees, we believe that we’ll have better knowledge around which we can make smart investments in their organizational and programmatic capacity, helping them to more efficiently and effectively achieve their outcomes.” (For more on how Wilburforce puts grantees at the “center of its map,” see this blog post by Beaudet.)

This approach has influenced the Foundation’s structure and its staff numbers. Wilburforce staff have fewer active grants per program officer than the median foundation in our comparative dataset of several hundred, and those program officers have responsibility for fewer dollars. So, while the Foundation may not be “lean” by those measures, it is clear that its staff’s work is making a difference to grantees.

To note that Wilburforce’s model works is not to suggest that it is superior to others. But it does appear to be the right one for the Foundation’s particular goals and the context in which it works.

“There’s not one single approach” that is best, as Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) President Stephen Heintz put it during a panel at the 2015 CEP Conference in May. “It’s about the end result — how are we delivering impact? And if you can do that with a very lean administrative model on the things you care about, great.” (Disclosure: Heintz is former Chair of the CEP Board of Directors and RBF is a client and grant funder of CEP.)

But Heintz noted that it often takes additional staff resources to do what is required to achieve a foundation’s goals. “The question is excellence and impact, not model!” he said, rather emphatically.

I think Heintz’s words are worth paying attention to — even if he does run a pretty old foundation.

Find all posts in the series here.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @philCEP.

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