The State of Performance Assessment, 10 Years Later

A decade ago, I started my job at CEP and we launched a study on performance assessment at large foundations. It’s not as if we were the first to think the question of whether a foundation was achieving its desired results was important. The earliest major American philanthropists cared deeply about results and some foundations, like Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, had been putting major resources into evaluation for decades.

But what was lacking, at that time, was a look across the large foundations to understand both practices and attitudes when it came to performance assessment.  So we undertook that study with limited resources — $345,000 in grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, Packard, and Surdna –  and a small staff (three of us worked on the project, and that was CEP’s sole effort in its first year).  We conducted a broad-based survey of CEOs and a series of qualitative interviews.

What we found was clear – and sobering.  CEOs didn’t feel particularly satisfied with the information they could tap to understand how their foundations were doing. They weren’t utilizing a broad set of indicators, tending instead to rely on evaluations that told them more about a particular grant or set of grants than about the overall effectiveness of the foundation they led. And many of them told us they wanted more timely indicators to help guide and inform their work.

A lot has changed in the past decade. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other new foundations have burst onto the scene. A whole set of infrastructure organizations, from CEP to GEO to Bridgespan to Guidestar, have either been founded or grown substantially. And the media has paid more attention to philanthropy, raising questions about how it operates and what it has achieved.

So we thought it made sense to take stock, again, of the state of performance assessment at large foundations. This time, we surveyed CEOs of foundations with at least $5 million in annual grantmaking.  We’ll release results of that study tomorrow at noon, EST.  Check this blog and our Web site to find out how performance assessment has changed and what the attitudes and practices are of foundation CEOs today.

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