What the Data Tells Us: You Need Staff to Do Certain Things Well

On the CEP blog last week and this week, CEP President Phil Buchanan is discussing, in a series of eight posts, recent critiques of large, staffed foundations and assertions that recently-established, “lean” foundations are paving a promising new path without being saddled by “bureaucracy.” The following is the sixth post in the series. To make sure you don’t miss a single one, subscribe to the CEP blog and get each post in your inbox as soon as it goes live.

CEP’s data and analysis confirm that foundations just can’t do certain things well without staff.

This isn’t just a theory, and the story about Wilburforce Foundation I told in my last post isn’t some fluke. Analysis of CEP’s grantee survey demonstrates the link between foundation staffing and certain aspects of performance, as experienced by grantees.

For example, our analysis of the provision of assistance beyond the grant to nonprofits has shown that foundation staff with fewer active relationships with grantees to manage provide more of the most useful patterns of assistance beyond the grant. Those with too many relationships to manage — those whose foundations are “too lean” — are unable to do so. We reported those results back in 2008, but recently replicated them with our now much-larger dataset of surveys of tens of thousands of grantees of nearly 300 foundations.

Beyond the effect that thin staffing has on grantees, it’s difficult to imagine how foundations could excel in other areas without sufficient staff. How, for example, are foundation staff to stay connected to the perspectives of intended beneficiaries, or on top of the latest research in their field, if they are overwhelmed with the sheer volume of grants to process?

How are they to identify the “best in class” nonprofits to fund, as Inside Philanthropy’s David Callahan urges, without paying attention to the evidence? As anyone who has worked in the sector for more than a moment understands all too well, performance isn’t always easy to gauge when working on complicated, interdependent, stubborn social problems. 

Larger foundations need staff to do their work. This isn’t to say that every foundation should hire more staff, or that the relationship between staff size and grantee experience or effectiveness is a direct, linear one. It isn’t. Staffing models vary, as they should, based on the approach of a particular foundation — or even based on the approach of different programs within the same foundation.

But the number of staff a foundation has matters — and our data and analysis suggest it has an effect on grantees as they do the on-the-ground work to achieve shared goals.

Find all posts in the series here.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @philCEP.

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