Timeless Dimensions of Effectiveness

This post is the first in a series of seven excerpting CEP President Phil Buchanan’s new essay, Big Issues, Many Questions, which explores five pressing issues facing U.S. foundation leaders and boards at this moment in time.

There’s a lot of talk of “reinvention” in philanthropy and a lot of conversation about changes that might “disrupt” what David Callahan of Inside Philanthropy rather derisively called “legacy foundations” or, even more derisively, “dinosaurs.” Emmett Carson of the Silicon Valley Foundation went so far as to suggest in the New York Times that only those in his world of young technology titans really understand what it takes.

“West Coast philanthropy is marked by innovation, it’s about disruption, it’s about change,” he told the Times, adding that “We see the future today,” while “you all see the future tomorrow.”

OK, then. It’s as though these and other observers believe that foundations with massive endowments will somehow disappear or become irrelevant as some younger donors choose to do their giving through donor-advised funds or LLCs.

But I don’t think so. Private and community foundations remain crucial sources of funding to nonprofits, and they wield significant influence. Foundations continue to have the potential — a potential that is in fact sometimes realized — to play a unique role in our society, a role other actors can’t or won’t.

Yes, it’s true that — almost daily, it seems — new buzzwords and purported silver bullets are introduced, often with much fanfare. Yet there is often little clarity on the efficacy of these “flavors of the month” or nuanced discussion about in which contexts they may make sense.

My view, and that of CEP, is that what it takes to be effective as a foundation is straightforward and pretty much timeless, albeit very hard to get right. It’s about clear goals, coherent strategies, disciplined implementation, and relevant indicators to gauge progress and fuel improvement. (See the working definition of foundation effectiveness that CEP’s Board of Directors and staff revised in 2015.)

That may sound easy and similar to what it takes to be successful in almost any endeavor. But it all plays out in more complicated ways than, say, in business. Goals are hard to choose when there are so many pressing, interrelated challenges. Strategies are difficult to craft because, unlike in business, a strategy can’t be yours alone or it will fail. Implementation is tough when you are working through others, and you need strong relationships to get things done. Indicators are difficult to identify when performance is not about the financial statements — and when progress on the outcomes that matter most can take decades.

The fundamentals of effective philanthropy are tough to master but timeless. And yet it is also true that we can’t be oblivious to what is changing around us. A lot is, in fact, changing.

There are some forces that are particular to this moment in time that foundations need to pay attention to if they want to be as effective as possible.  The fundamentals may be the same, but the dynamics are different and pose new challenges, opportunities, and questions.

Over the course of the next few weeks on the CEP blog, I will explore five trends or issues that I believe are especially relevant to the foundation sector — and that need, in my view, to be the subject of serious conversation in every foundation boardroom.

Download Big Issues, Many Questions here.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. He can be reached at philb@cep.org. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilCEP.

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