Fueled by new technology and a change in mind-set, foundations have become more transparent about their activities and operations in recent years. This has been heartening, given the responsibilities and privileges inherent to our tax status, and the fact that we must work in partnership with many constituents and stakeholders in order to achieve our goals.
Just recently, there has been a major contribution in this regard by the Foundation Center’s Glass Pockets website, which provides a look at best practices in foundation transparency and which encourages the field to move further in this direction. The number of foundations and array of practices reflected on that site is impressive, and Irvine’s work on performance assessment, the subject of these blog posts, has sought to contribute to this movement.
In the first three posts of this series I described why we developed a performance assessment framework, outlined some of the challenges we’ve encountered in assessing Irvine’s performance, and shared feedback from our board, the primary audience for the Annual Performance Report. In this final post I want to argue that robust performance assessment activities — and the transparency they encourage — serve to make philanthropy more effective.
Based on our experience over the past five years in developing a performance assessment framework and reporting on it annually to our board, I am persuaded that our work has been enhanced by the discipline and rigor that this process has imposed upon us. We focus each year on providing thoughtful and thorough answers to the six central questions at the heart of our approach to performance assessment:
- Where are our grants going?
- Are we achieving what we set out to achieve?
- How do lessons from our program work improve our approach?
- How is the Foundation exercising leadership in the field?
- How do key stakeholders perceive us, and how do their perceptions inform our work?
- How are we performing along measures of financial health and organizational effectiveness?
By focusing on these questions explicitly and reporting on our answers annually, I believe we are stretching ourselves in ways that ultimately advance our mission and goals. As a private foundation, making grants is a key tool for us — indeed the primary tool — but absent clarity of goals and objectives, ongoing reflection and refinement, and purposeful evaluation and assessment, such grantmaking may not reach its full effectiveness.
These six questions may not be the right ones for everyone, and they may even evolve for us, but the process of clarifying the questions at the center of how we think about our foundation’s performance has been useful as has the process of reporting on our annual progress. But more than the process, I hope our ability to have positive impact has been accelerated, and I’m eager to hear what others might think in this regard.
Finally, at the same time as I advance this argument, I’ll quickly add that we need to be cautious that exercises in performance assessment do not lead us to become so internally focused and metrics obsessed that we lose the bigger picture. This remains in my view one of the primary tensions inherent to this work that we need to balance consciously at all times.
I hope this set of posts on our approach at Irvine can stimulate a broader dialogue that ultimately advances our field’s understanding and improves our practices. In the end, we need to be concerned principally with the advancement of our respective missions, which I believe is enhanced by the presence of a well-considered approach to performance assessment.
Jim Canales is President of the James Irvine Foundation
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.