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Improving Philanthropy: An Interview with Melinda Tuan

By Nell Edgington



Melinda TuanIn today’s Social Velocity interview, I’m talking with Melinda Tuan, project manager for Fund for Shared Insight (Shared Insight), a collaborative effort among funders to make grants that improve philanthropy. In that capacity, Melinda plays a key role in guiding and facilitating Shared Insight’s activities including operations, communication, grantmaking, and evaluation.

Melinda is an independent consultant who works with the senior leadership of philanthropic organizations to develop strategies for effective philanthropy. Prior to starting her consulting practice in 2003, Melinda was managing director of REDF (formerly The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund) – a social venture capital fund she co-founded.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders here.

Nell: One of the reasons the Fund for Shared Insight was established was to encourage more foundation transparency. Recent research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) demonstrated that there is still much work to do to make foundations more transparent, particularly about their strategies and impact. How do you think we get more foundations to be more open about these things?

Melinda: We would offer an amendment to the question, as we at the Fund for Shared Insight don’t use the word “transparency” in reference to our overall work. Rather, we prefer to talk about increasing foundation “openness.” Here’s why.

To us, transparency, while important, describes a one-way sharing out of information. As indicated in the CEP research, foundations need to be more open to sharing information – particularly about how they assess their own work, and what they’ve learned about what is and is not successful. However, in addition to sharing more information out, we believe foundations need to be more open to listening and taking in information from grantees and the people we all seek to help, and acting on what we learn to inform our own practices to be more effective.

This very question of how to encourage foundation openness and increase the two-way exchange of information is what we are trying to address throughout our work. The good news is, based on the CEP research which we had the privilege of funding in our first year, foundation CEOs believe being more transparent – sharing more information out – will help them be more effective. Additionally, both foundations and nonprofits agree on the definition of and importance of transparency. This is welcomed news because transparency is an important part of increasing openness.

Building on that, our next phase of work will focus on enabling and inspiring foundations to adopt a variety of approaches to be more open in service of effectiveness. We issued an open request for proposals in May for increasing foundation openness and are currently reviewing 31 proposals for various initiatives such as building networks, providing training, and creating technology platforms among others. We are excited to announce which projects we’ll be funding by the end of July.

Nell: One of the hurdles to more openness among both nonprofits and foundations is the power imbalance between nonprofits and their funders. How do you think we work to overcome that imbalance, or can we? And how do you deal with these power dynamics in the work of the Fund for Shared Insight?

Melinda: While there is no quick fix solution, we believe building trust between foundations and nonprofit partners is a key way to diffuse this power dynamic. There are so many ways we can build – and break – trust, and much of this comes down to how we relate to each other as people. We build trust when we follow-through with what we say we will do in a timely manner, offer support in times of challenge and crisis, listen before speaking, ask good questions, and are curious learners. We break trust when we do the opposite – when we don’t follow through on our commitments, dole out punishment when we hear bad news, talk first and too often, and don’t enter into this work with a spirit of inquiry and wanting to learn for improvement. If foundations are as open with nonprofits as they would like their grantees to be with them, we believe we can work together and make great progress towards building the trusting relationships that can lead to greater overall effectiveness.

At Shared Insight we try to be mindful of the power dynamics in our own interactions and communications with the nonprofits we fund in both formal and informal ways. On the formal side, we have commissioned the Grantee Perception Report (GPR) and are looking forward to sharing what we’ve learned from our nonprofit partners who provided feedback via the GPR in the fall of 2016. On the informal side, we find simply making time to check in with individuals at the beginning of every meeting or call helps to build our personal relationships and establish a baseline of genuine interest in each other’s lives in addition to the work we are doing together. We also try to uphold a high standard of responsiveness and clarity about how we make and communicate our funding decisions – we have to walk our own talk.

As a funder collaborative now 35 foundations strong, we are in the unique position of being both a grantor and a grantee. It’s been fascinating to on one hand have conversations with our nonprofit partners and try to minimize the power imbalance in our interactions, and on the other hand experience the supplicant perspective as we seek funds from our core funders, additional funders and Listen for Good co-funders. We think this dual role helps us be extra-aware of the power dynamic and informs our understanding of helpful practices as the giver and receiver of grant dollars. We’ve learned a lot of useful lessons about these dynamics and relationships since our launch. Chris Cardona from the Ford Foundation, one of our eight core funders, highlighted many of these important lessons in a blog post for Transparency Talk. We know that we’ll continue to learn and grow as we move forward and these relationships progress.

Nell: Your approach somewhat assumes a desire among philanthropists to move to a more evidence-based approach to giving. But some research, like the Money for Good reports, has found that donors as a whole are not that interested in results and impact. Do you believe that much of philanthropy can move toward an evidence-based approach? And if so, how do we get there?

Melinda: The Money for Good research you reference was focused on individual donor decision-making, and found that individual donors are less interested in results and impact. In contrast, our work at the Fund for Shared Insight focuses on staffed foundations in the U.S. Research, at least on the larger foundations, has shown that many foundations are interested in results and impact. For example, the number of foundations belonging to Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) reporting that they conducted evaluations of their work went from around 20% in 2008 to more than 70% in 2011, and has only continued to grow.

One of our primary research questions regarding feedback loops is whether perceptual feedback from program participants today can serve as leading indicators of future outcomes for those same participants. In education, for example, students who answer in the affirmative to the question “I feel there is a teacher at school who cares about me” have been shown to achieve more positive educational outcomes. We are hoping our grant to Innovations for Poverty Action will help us analyze the relationship, if any, between perceptual feedback and outcomes in randomized controlled trials of programs in developing countries, and we hope to fund a similar project here in the U.S. If we are able to find these linkages between perceptual feedback and ultimate outcomes, this information will go a long way toward helping nonprofits and foundations improve programs in real-time without having to wait 2-3 years for the evidence of outcomes to be demonstrated.

We at Shared Insight are committed to measuring the results of our own work and sharing what we learn, and have devoted an entire section of our website to sharing how we are evaluating our progress toward improving philanthropy. All of our work is focused on learning for improvement, whether through evidence-based approaches to giving, feedback loops, or other ways to understanding the effectiveness of philanthropic investments.

Nell: Recently 22 philanthropic infrastructure organizations (like Guidestar, Nonprofit Finance Fund, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations) signed a letter asking foundations to commit 1% of their grantmaking budgets to supporting the infrastructure of the nonprofit sector as a whole. The Fund for Shared Insight is arguably a piece of this infrastructure, so what do you make of their argument and can you see foundations agreeing to this goal?

Melinda: The Fund for Shared Insight emerged out of a desire among a number of funders to improve the philanthropic sector, especially by strengthening infrastructure and the process of collecting and sharing feedback.

One of the great things about the Fund for Shared Insight is that we are a collaborative. Each of the foundations involved with Shared Insight supports infrastructure in different ways. For instance, Fay Twersky and Lindsay Louie of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (a core funder) recently co-wrote an op-ed in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in support of this letter, noting:

“Funders who believe in learning to improve have some obligation to invest at least a small portion of their grantmaking to infrastructure support. Supporting infrastructure doesn’t take away from other giving; it amplifies it. It unites all of us as funders—whether you fund in your local community, focus on a particular issue or multiple issues, or take a policy or research approach. Givers of all stripes can use and benefit from the infrastructure that supports us all.”

Photo Credit: Fund for Shared Insight

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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