January 6, 2014 From the President

How Do We Know If We Are Effective?

This is a question that foundation boards and staff may well ask themselves as they reflect at the end of a year, or at the beginning of a new year of funding. It’s an important question. And often the answer is, we don’t really know. There are many calls on a foundation’s resources, and several goals that might be pursued at the same time. And it is not easy to establish a link between what a funder does and the broader social good.  Much depends on whether the partner organizations with which a funder works are effective in reaching their goals. For these non-profit organizations, assessing impact is a difficult job to add on to the already large job of delivering their program or pursuing their initiative. But what will it take to get a more convincing answer to the question about impact for funders? Is it more evidence, better communication, more consistent metrics, more research?

These thoughts are provoked by a new report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy, How Far Have We Come? Foundation CEOs on Progress and Impact. This excellent report comes not only with the Center’s own findings from its survey of foundation leaders, but also with the added value of some very good open questions offered as a way to stimulate a foundation board or staff discussion of impact.

The CEOs surveyed by the Center were sober about the amount of progress being achieved overall towards a social goal such as improvement of early childhood learning, or more successful integration of new immigrants. However, these same CEOs were more positive about their own organizations, suggesting that they had made a significant contribution to the progress achieved and that they are already implementing practices that are increasing their impact. Indeed, they feel that the main barriers to their organization being more effective are external ones, such as public policy or the slow economy. This being said, they acknowledge that foundations as a group are not good at sharing stories about what does not work, and are overly risk-averse.

The Center researchers note that there are a few interpretations of the conflicting data about the degree to which foundations are responsible for having impact. One is that foundation leaders systematically overestimate their own successes. A second is that foundations are achieving much more than we realize; that there is more good work happening than is appreciated because it is not communicated, even among foundations. A third is that the challenges that foundations are trying to address are massive, so even if overall progress is modest, foundations can rightly claim they have made a significant contribution.

Regardless, says the Center, its findings suggest that foundation leaders should take a hard look at themselves and their assessment of their progress. If, indeed, their contributions are significant, or they have come to realize what really works—or doesn’t —to make progress on an issue, then there is an opportunity to communicate that information more clearly so that others can learn from them. “If anything is clear in our data, it is that foundations share an appetite for more information: for more evidence of what works, what doesn’t, and in what contexts.”

There are many questions for an end or beginning of year reflection here. What do you think? Does this need to share more and better information ring true for Canadian foundations?

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