To What End?

The following post originally appeared on Beth Kanter’s blog.

The just-concluded GEO conference, held in Seattle last week, was an impressive assembly of hundreds of funders who gathered to focus on pushing for greater effectiveness in pursuit of their intended impact.

On the one hand, I was impressed by the quality of conversation and sessions during the time I was there. On the other hand, I kept wondering whether, in all the excitement about seemingly “new” models and approaches (which often are not so new), we are losing sight of the basics.

My worry is that, too often, we do not root our discussions in the essentials of goals and strategy.

Discussions about tactics and approaches – from PRIs to capacity building to scaling to networks to use of social media – happen outside of a context of clarity about the most fundamental questions: What are our goals? Given those goals, what are the best strategies to achieve them?

It is only in this context that funders can make intelligent choices about which of the many tools and frameworks offered up at a conference like GEO make sense for them. But, too often, that crucial context gets lost in the chase of the shiny new trend.

One effort to address this problem, in which I wish more funders would participate, is the Charting Impact initiative. Charting Impact is a strategic alliance among Independent Sector, BBB Wise Giving Alliance, and GuideStar. As my CEP colleague Kevin Bolduc, who served as an advisor to this effort, recently noted on the CEP Blog, foundations are few and far between on the list of those who have publicly addressed the five “deceptively simple questions” that Charting Impact asks of organizations.

The questions are:

  1. What is your organization aiming to accomplish?
  2. What are your strategies for making this happen?
  3. What are your organization’s capabilities for doing this?
  4. How will your organization know if you are making progress?
  5. What have and haven’t you accomplished so far?

Wouldn’t it be great to see every funder who is a member of GEO answer these questions publicly? Perhaps GEO could even make participation a prerequisite to membership?

For many, answering the questions Charting Impact asks would be easy. For others, just seeking to answer these questions would force important discussions among foundation staff and board members and, perhaps, crucial steps to gain greater clarity on the answers. It could also help funders make better decisions about which approaches are right for them. At the very least, it would send a message to nonprofits that their funders are walking the talk when it comes to clarity on these matters.

So I hope funders will follow the lead of peers like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Tustin Community Foundation and participate in this initiative. (Full disclosure: Hewlett is a grant funder of CEP and a user of our assessment tools.)

Let’s root our conversations and thinking in the crucial context of the particular goals and strategies we are pursuing. Otherwise, all our talk of innovative, new approaches will be just that: talk.

Phil Buchanan is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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