What Are Foundations Working to Accomplish?

One theme that has come up again and again in CEP’s research on foundation effectiveness is the importance of foundations communicating their goals clearly. Our past research has shown that how clearly a foundation communicates its goals and strategies to grantees is an important component of their relationship with grantees, which is itself the best predictor for how much impact a grantee thinks a foundation has had on its organization. Also, in research about foundation staff empowerment, CEP found that staff who don’t know whether they are working toward the same goals as their CEO feel significantly less empowered than staff who do.

In order for CEOs or staff to clearly communicate the foundation’s goals, the goals themselves must be clear to begin with. In CEP’s report about staff empowerment, one foundation staff member illustrated this point in saying, “The annual report showed me that we’re still not clear what the organizational goals are. What a surprise to learn [what I thought was our goal] isn’t our goal…If our own communications department isn’t getting it right, how am I supposed to get it?”

In our latest research, we asked CEOs how clear they believe their foundations’ goals are. Few CEOs believe their foundation’s goals are completely clear (10 percent) and most think they are very clear (55 percent) or somewhat clear (30 percent).

Goal clarity is correlated with greater confidence on the part of CEOs when it comes to assessment. Respondents who report that their foundation’s programmatic goals are “very clear” or “completely clear”:

  • Tend to be more confident in their assessment of the overall progress that has been made toward their primary goal.
  • Are more likely to strongly agree that their foundation has made progress in being able to understand its impact in the past decade.

Our research continues to show that having clear goals and communicating them matters. In the cases when CEOs themselves aren’t completely clear on what their foundation is working to accomplish, it stands to reason that their staff or grantees won’t be, either. These findings indicate it is worthwhile for foundation leaders to reflect on their organization’s goals and assess how clear they really are.

To read more from CEP’s latest research on foundation CEOs’ perceptions of how much progress foundations have made, what are their barriers to progress, and what foundations can do to increase their impact, see the report How Far Have We Come? Foundation CEOs on Progress and Impact.

Ramya Gopal is a Senior Research Analyst at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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