Center for Effective Philanthropy
Note: I was asked by The Center for Effective Philanthropy to review their latest research report, Sharing What Matters: Perspectives on Foundation Transparency, released in late February, and provide my thoughts about it for their on-going blog series on the report. Below is my post which originally appeared on the CEP blog.
Sharing What Matters: Perspectives on Foundation Transparency provides some startling data about the state of transparency in the foundation world.
While for the most part, foundation leaders recognize the importance of transparency and are trying to be more transparent, the report shows there is still much work to do.
To me, this question of foundation transparency is part of the larger, ever-present power imbalance in the nonprofit sector between those with money (funders), and those who seek that money (nonprofits). Funders often encourage nonprofits to be transparent about their results and when they have succeeded or failed. But it appears that in these two areas (results and lessons learned), funders are less transparent than either their grantees want them to be, or they would like themselves to be.
This is all critically important because a more transparent philanthropic sector — particularly if foundations were more transparent about how they assess their results and what has worked and what hasn’t — could mean more money flowing to more social change.
CEP’s report delineates two levels of foundation transparency. First is transparency about grantmaking: who leads the foundation, how they have made grants in the past, how they make decisions. The second is transparency about the results foundations themselves achieve: how they assess the performance of their investments, how they share successes and failures.
This second (and I would argue much more interesting) level of transparency is about foundations reporting the very thing they are often asking nonprofits to report: their performance.
In particular, the research uncovers three stark disconnects:
- Foundations Don’t Share How They Assess Their Performance
Of the foundation leaders surveyed, 61 percent said they believe being transparent about how their foundation assesses its performance could increase effectiveness to a significant extent. Yet, only 35 percent of foundations reported actually being very or extremely transparent about it.
- Foundations Aren’t Transparent about Successes and Failures
While 69 percent of foundation leaders think that being transparent about what’s worked in their grantmaking could increase their effectiveness, only 46 percent report being very or extremely transparent about what’s worked. And transparency about what hasn’t worked is even worse. 30 percent of foundation leaders say their foundations are very or extremely transparent about what does not work, which makes failures the lowest-rated area of foundation transparency. And nonprofits agree that foundation transparency is lowest when it comes to sharing what hasn’t worked.
- Foundations Want to Be More Transparent, But Aren’t
While 94 percent of foundation leaders surveyed say that increased transparency is a medium or high priority at their foundation, 75 percent of foundation leaders say that their current levels of transparency are not sufficient. And shockingly, 24 percent of foundation leaders say that nothing limits their ability to be more transparent. So it’s a big priority, yet it’s not getting done.
The report suggests some reasons why transparency about performance and lessons learned is recognized as important, but still far from ubiquitous in the philanthropic sector:
- Lack of Strategy: Foundations aren’t creating clear enough goals around which they can actually assess their performance.
- Lack of Capacity for Evaluation: Foundations aren’t allocating enough resources to assessing their performance.
- Fear of Diminished Reputation: Foundations are afraid of harming their own or their grantees’ reputations by revealing what has or hasn’t worked.
Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly), these impediments to foundation transparency mimic the hurdles nonprofits find (or place) in their own way. Nonprofits often pour as much money as possible into programs and skimp on investing in organization-building efforts like strategy and evaluation. This bias against organization-building is often encouraged (or demanded) by their funders. And so it appears that funders put these same hurdles in their own way. Perhaps foundations, just like their nonprofit grantees, need to acknowledge that with sufficient investments in smart strategy and performance evaluation, greater results can be achieved.
The third and final impediment to foundation transparency about performance and lessons learned is trickier. Fear of harming the reputations of their grantees by sharing lessons learned is a real issue. Foundations tend to invest in packs. So if a foundation reveals investments that have failed, there is a risk that other foundations will flee.
But if we truly want to move to a place where more resources flow to what works, don’t we have to be more transparent about what worked and what didn’t work? If a foundation investment failed because of the foundation’s shortcomings (the investment didn’t fit with foundation goals, the foundation didn’t invest enough, or it didn’t invest in capacity as well as programs), the foundation (and other foundations learning from these lessons) could learn to become more effective investors. And if the investment didn’t work simply because it was the wrong intervention, then isn’t it better to move investments to interventions that do work? Fear can be a debilitating thing, and for the sake of greater results, I think both foundations and their nonprofit grantees must work to overcome it.
Ultimately, the CEP report is hopeful. It uncovers a desire among both foundation leaders and their grantees to move from a basic level of transparency toward a deeper (and more important) one that reveals performance and lessons learned.
Let’s hope that this stated desire for a change in foundation transparency, and the requisite changes in how foundations invest in strategy and performance assessment and overcome fear, becomes reality.
Photo Credit: The Center for Effective Philanthropy
Note: As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a few weeks away from the blog to relax and reconnect with the world outside of social change. But I am leaving you in the incredibly capable hands of a rockstar set of guest bloggers. Next up is Phil Buchanan, President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. He is also a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. Here is his guest post…
When it comes to the debate about the social impact of endowment investments, college and university campuses – not foundations – seem to be where the action is. Foundations have hundreds of billions of dollars in assets but, today, most of the large ones appear to be placing no restrictions whatsoever on how their endowments are invested.
Divestment is hardly a new issue, of course. In the late 1980s, when I was deciding where to go to college, many campuses were racked by a heated debate over divestment from companies doing business in apartheid South Africa. In the 1990s, the issue was divestment from tobacco companies. Today, a similar debate is playing out over fossil fuels, for-profit prison companies, and other investments
True, most college boards are still refusing to limit their investment options much, if at all. From what I understand, the arguments against divestment that get made in college and university – as well as foundation – boardrooms include that divestment doesn’t accomplish anything, that it’s a board’s fiduciary duty to maximize returns, and that ruling out some investments risks a slippery slope in which an increasing number of industries are ruled out for moral reasons.
But it’s a very live issue in higher education and some institutions are, in fact, drawing boundaries around how their endowments can be invested. They are deciding — usually after sustained student and faculty pressure — that their monies should not support certain industries.
Stanford University divested from coal companies in 2014 and, this year, Syracuse University divested entirely from fossil fuels. “Syracuse has a long record of supporting responsible environmental stewardship and good corporate citizenship, and we want to continue that record,” said the school’s Chancellor. “Formalizing our commitment to not invest directly in fossil fuels is one more way we do that.”
Earlier this summer, Columbia University made headlines as the first college or university to divest from the for-profit prison industry, following a student campaign. “This action occurs within the larger, ongoing discussion of the issue of mass incarceration that concerns citizens from across the ideological spectrum,” read a University statement.
But what about private foundation endowments — which Foundation Center estimates to be some $580 billion in total? Rockefeller Brothers Fund (RBF) received a lot of attention last fall with its decision to divest from fossil fuels. Was this decision part of a larger movement among funders?
Evidently not, or at least not yet, as the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), the organization I lead, reported in Investing and Social Impact: Practices of Private Foundations. (The report was released in May and is based on a benchmarking survey of private foundations making at least $10 million in grants annually.) RBF is one of very few larger foundations to divest from fossil fuels, or from anything, for that matter — at least so-far. More than 80 percent of the 60 foundations that responded to this portion of our data collection effort said they screen nothing — not fossil fuel companies, tobacco companies, for-profit prisons, or anything else — out of their endowment investments.
Of the small proportion that do some screening, most exclude tobacco companies. Just three have divested their endowments from fossil fuels.
Time will tell whether the decision of RBF and a few others — and the accompanying publicity — will lead more foundations to reflect and then take this step. Of course, large foundations don’t face the kind of pressures colleges do — sit-ins by students, faculty votes, or pledges from alumni to withhold donations, for example.
Still, given all the discussion about aligning investing decisions and the pursuit of social impact, I was surprised how few foundations have placed any restrictions at all on their investments. I have spoken with some foundation CEOs and board members who make an impassioned argument that to do so would be irresponsible and pointless. Interestingly, though, few seem willing to make this argument against connecting investment decisions to social impact publicly.
On the other end of the spectrum in this debate is Clara Miller, president of the FB Heron Foundation, which invests “all our assets for mission.” Miller, who is quite comfortable making her case publicly, argues that foundations are doing “impact investing” whether they know it or not. “Foundations are investing 100 percent of their assets for impact; they just don’t know whether it’s positive or negative,” she said in this CEP conference session in May. “We have a duty of obedience to mission. And that applies to all of our assets.”
Wherever you come down on this debate, it’s probably fairly easy to agree that it’s an important one. I hope foundation boards will engage it.
As I mentioned earlier, it is so important to take time away to rejuvenate and reconnect with your passions, family and friends. So I am taking my own advice and taking some time off later this summer to connect with the world outside of social change.
And so for the second summer in a row I’ve asked a group of social change thought leaders to write guest blog posts in my absence (you can read last summer’s guest blog posts here).
I am so excited about this year’s group of amazing social change thinkers. They are experts in social change finance, philanthropy, political reform, outcomes data, organizational effectiveness and much, much more. They are smart, thoughtful, engaged and visionary leaders. And they are all helping to move social change forward in big ways.
Below is the lineup of guest bloggers with background information on each of them. Their posts will begin in late July. Enjoy!
Antony is the CEO of Nonprofit Finance Fund (NFF), a national nonprofit and financial intermediary where he oversees more than $340 million of investment capital and works with philanthropic, private sector and government partners to develop and implement innovative approaches to financing social change. NFF also creates the annual State of the Sector Survey. Antony writes and speaks on the evolution of the social sector and the emergence of the global impact investing industry. Prior to leading NFF he was Managing Director at the Rockefeller Foundation. He is the founding board chair of the Global Impact Investing Network and convened the 2007 meeting that coined the phrase “impact investing.” You can read my past interview with Antony here.
UPDATE: Here is Antony’s guest post.
Kelly is a program officer at the Hewlett Foundation working on their Madison Initiative, which focuses on reducing today’s politically polarized environment. Before joining Hewlett, Kelly worked as a strategy consultant with the Monitor Institute, a nonprofit consulting firm, where she supported a range of foundations’ strategic planning efforts. In addition to her experience as a strategy consultant, Kelly has worked with various nonprofit and multilateral organizations including Ashoka in Peru, the World Bank’s microfinance group CGAP in Paris, Technoserve in East Africa, and both The Asia Foundation and Rubicon National Social Innovation in the Bay Area. Kelly guest lectures on impact investing at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and often writes for the always thoughtful Hewlett Foundation blog.
UPDATE: Here is Kelly’s guest post.
Phil is President of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), a nonprofit that is the leading provider of data and insight on foundation effectiveness. CEP helps bring the voice of grantees and other stakeholders into the foundation boardroom and encourages foundations to set clear goals, and coherent strategies, be disciplined in implementation, and use relevant performance indicators. Phil writes and speaks extensively about nonprofits and philanthropy and rarely pulls punches when he does. He is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy and a frequent blogger for the excellent CEP Blog. He was named to the 2007, 2008 and 2014 “Power and Influence Top 50” list in The Nonprofit Times. You can read my past interview with Phil here.
UPDATE: Here is Phil’s guest post.
Kathy is Organizational Effectiveness and Philanthropy Director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation where she helps grantees around the world improve their strategy, leadership, and impact. Her team makes grants on a broad range of organizational development issues, from business planning to social media strategy to network effectiveness. She also manages the Packard Foundation’s grantmaking to support the philanthropic sector. Prior to joining the Foundation, she worked in a non-profit, on Capitol Hill, and in state and local government in California. Kathy serves on the board of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and on the advisory committee for the Center for Effective Philanthropy. You can read my past interview with her here.
UPDATE: Here is Kathy’s guest post.
I asked David to be a guest blogger again this summer because he is so insightful and often points out things that few others in the sector are willing to acknowledge. He is Director of Analytics for Family Independence Initiative, a national nonprofit which leverages the power of information to illuminate and accelerate the initiative low-income families take to improve their lives. David is also the former founder of Idealistics, a social sector consulting firm that helped organizations increase outcomes, demonstrate results, and organize information. He writes his own blog, Full Contact Philanthropy, which is amazing. You can read his past guest blog post here and my interview with him here.
UPDATE: Here is David’s guest post.
Does it seem like there is more open debate lately in the social sector? Or maybe I’m just attracted to discussions where the gloves come off and (let’s hope) transformative conversation happens. That was the case in May where philanthropic transparency, nonprofit leadership, and donor acceptance policies were all up for debate.
Add to that some really interesting developments in the new “sharing economy”, net neutrality, and use of big data, and it was another great month in the world of social innovation.
Below are my 10 favorite reads from the last month, but please add what I missed to the comments. And if you want to see a longer list of great reads, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+.
And you can see past months’ 10 Great Reads lists here.
- Writing in the New York Times, Frank Bruni criticizes some nonprofits for accepting donations from donors who actually undermine the cause. These nonprofits, in effect, end up whitewashing the philanthropists, “Some [philanthropy] is prophylactic or penitential: The polluter supports environmentalists, while the peddler of sugary soft drinks contributes to campaigns against obesity.”
- And philanthropists themselves were far from criticism this month. Writing in The Atlantic, Benjamin Soskis believes it is critical for a healthy democracy that philanthropists go under the microscope, in fact: “Given the power that private philanthropy can wield over public policy, a spirited, fully-informed public debate over the scope, scale, and nature of that influence is a democratic necessity.” Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy agrees. And to that end, May saw the launch of Philamplify, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s attempt at a Yelp-like review site of foundations.
- In a long (but well worth the time) piece, Albert Ruesga from the Greater New Orleans Foundation lays bare his antipathy toward his fellow philanthropists: “We grantmakers, myself included, act as arrogant elites, drawing arrows and triangles on the whiteboards of our well-appointed conference rooms with no one around to challenge our flawed thinking. We strut about like giant roosters puffing out our breast feathers and clucking incoherently about ‘disruption’ and ‘theories of change.’ We look foolish to everyone except ourselves and those even more foolish than we are.”
- But there are bright spots. Daniel Stid from the Hewlett Foundation takes to the Hewlett blog to refreshingly demonstrate funder transparency and explain “What Went Wrong in Our Democracy Grantmaking.” And Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett and author of a scathing critique of philanthropy last year, has a fascinating debate/very civilized exchange with ethicist William MacAskill about how effective (or harmful) philanthropy can be.
- We are living in the era of big data, and this month there were some really interesting examples of how data can be used to make things better. First, UPS uses data to improve driver performance and profitability. The University of Texas at Austin is doing some fascinating things with data to help at-risk students graduate. And some nonprofits are using data to improve fundraising effectiveness.
- Last month saw the first-ever sharing economy conference. This new idea – that our economy is evolving to a point at which goods, services, ideas are all shared – has serious implications for the social sector. Lucy Bernholz and Beth Kanter break it down for us.
- And a key part of that sharing economy is an open Internet. But the FCC is considering changes to rules that would allow a “two-tiered” Internet where those with means can pay more for faster service. The Benton Foundation did a nice summary of developments around net neutrality. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation organized to let voices be heard by the FCC.
- Innovation is hard work. So when the work of creating social change drags you down, you only need look as far as Steven Pressfield for inspiration, “When we’re stuck, when we’re freaking out, when it all seems too much too soon too crazy, remember: that’s only how it seems to us, confined within our limited point of view. From the universe’s perspective, all is as it should be. Sooner or later, you and I will stop fighting and let the symphony/supernova/baby be born.”
- Using data from the Nonprofit Finance Fund’s most recent State of the Sector survey, work by state associations of nonprofits, and new Uniform Guidance for federal grants from the federal Office of Management and Budget, Beth Bowsky from the National Council of Nonprofits charts some positive developments in government funding the true costs of nonprofits’ work.
- Never one to sugar coat it, in an interview on the Idealist blog, Robert Egger describes his vision for the next generation of nonprofit leaders: “Our society needs an elevated nonprofit sector, but to get there, we need people who are prepared to challenge antiquated ideas about the role we play in the economic and political process.”
Photo Credit: Mo Riza
There is a new conference in the social innovation space that I’m pretty excited about. After the Leap is the brainchild of Social Solutions CEO Steve Butz and his PerformWell partners, Child Trends and Urban Institute. The conference builds upon the momentum Mario Morino has created around his book, Leap of Reason, published in 2011.
Since writing Leap of Reason Mario has been on a crusade of sorts to the get the nonprofit sector to acknowledge that our new Era of Scarcity requires nonprofits to “literally reinvent themselves…[and] respond with greater discipline, unity, and focus on making a quantum change in the effectiveness and impact of our entire sector.” In essence he is encouraging nonprofits to determine what they exist to change and whether they are actually creating those changes.
As part of this movement, Mario and others have organized the After the Leap conference that will allow you to learn from experts in the field about how executives, practitioners and funders are advancing outcomes measurement and performance management, and what you can do in your own organizations and communities. The After the Leap conference will be held in Washington, D.C. on December 3rd and 4th.
Some of the keynote speakers include:
- Melody Barners, Former Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council
- Nancy Roob, President of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation
- Daniel Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, and
- Mario Morino
And the breakout sessions will cover everything from the Social Innovation Fund, to finding money for evaluation, to nonprofit case studies, to how to implement performance management systems, to effective leadership and much more.
Breakout session speakers are coming from the Gates Foundation, the Urban Institute, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, the Promise Neighborhood Initiative, and other foundations, nonprofits and agencies at the leading edge of the outcomes movement.
I’m so excited about the conference that I’ve already registered. And I’ll be blogging and Tweeting from the conference as well.
If you are a nonprofit leader, board member, or funder interested in pushing your nonprofit towards measuring outcomes, this conference is for you. You can register here.
I hope to see you there!
Since I was out of the office for part of July and checked out of social media (which I highly recommend!), the below list is in no way comprehensive. But it is what caught my eye in the world of social innovation in July (when I was paying attention). More than ever, please add what I missed in the comments below.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- In a highly provocative op-ed, Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, wrote a pretty scathing rant against today’s philanthropy, calling it “conscience laundering — feeling better about accumulating more than any one person could possibly need to live on by sprinkling a little around as an act of charity.” Needless to say, much argument followed, including Howard Husock’s post arguing that Buffett is “far too pessimistic about what philanthropy, well-conceived, can accomplish.”
- Dan Cardinali, CEO of Communities in Schools and an emerging voice on the importance of measuring nonprofit outcomes, wrote a third piece in his series on redefining the nonprofit sector. This one explores the need for nonprofits to “hold ourselves accountable to objective measures and quantifiable outcomes.”
- And another nonprofit leader trying to shake things up, Bill Shore of Share Our Strength, offers the provocative “We Just Don’t Have the Money, and Other Fibs We Tell Ourselves“.
- Antony Bugg-Levine from the Nonprofit Finance Fund provides additional fodder to the conversation with his post “Navigating Tough Trade-offs in the Era of Scarcity.”
- Lucy Bernholz, philanthropy truth teller and future seer, offers three ways we can reinvent philanthropy in this great, short video brain dump.
- Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, talks with Paul Carttar, former Director of the Social Innovation Fund, about what he learned there. It remains to be seen what impact the Social Innovation Fund will have, but as Paul says, government can and must play a role in social innovation, “The challenge for everybody — for government and for philanthropy — is to understand what each has to offer.”
- The New York Times uses Think Impact (which encourages entrepreneurship in third world communities) to provide an interesting case study of the dilemma of deciding whether to be a for-profit or nonprofit social change organization.
- Ever provocative, Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy argues that the approach MBA programs take in teaching philanthropy “denies the reality that nonprofits and philanthropy work to address the problems that have defied markets…and, in many cases, are a result of market failure.”
- Writing on the Pioneers Post blog, Jeremy Nicholls takes issue with the word “impact” and encourages us to think about “value” instead.
- The National Committee on Responsive Philanthropy found that in 2011 American foundations increased unrestricted giving by 50% (from 16% of all grant dollars going to support general operating in 2010 to 24% in 2011). Now that’s an exciting trend!
Photo Credit: josue64
June was all about attacking some pretty fundamental roadblocks in the way of social change. From the pivotal “Pledge Against The Overhead Myth,” to a new database for all nonprofit organizations, to moving philanthropists from innovators to capacity builders, to ideas for growing the level of giving, it seems June was about putting everything on the table and exposing what stands in the way of progress.
Below are my 10 favorite social innovation reads in June. But, as always, add your favorites to the list in the comments below. And if you want to see my expanded list, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or Google+.
You can see the 10 Great Reads lists from past months here.
- The big news in June was GuideStar, Charity Navigator and BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s Open Letter to the Donors of America and their kick-off of the Pledge to End the Overhead Myth. The three nonprofit review organizations are on a quest to expose the destructive nature of the overhead myth.
- This exciting announcement was followed quickly by some great articles. Kjerstin Erickson’s (former Executive Director of FORGE) eye-opening post about how the overhead myth can ruin a great nonprofit. And Ann Goggins Gregory (most famous for the seminal Nonprofit Starvation Cycle article in a 2009 Stanford Social Innovation Review that arguably started the entire overhead debate) great post about what nonprofits can do to speed adoption of the idea of overhead as myth. And Phil Buchanan from the Center for Effective Philanthropy chimes in with what foundations can do. And writing on the Grantmakers in the Arts blog, Janet Brown seems to agree, arguing that “with more efforts for honest assessment and honest communication between funders and nonprofits, we can stop dancing solo and begin dancing as real partners.”
- Antony Bugg-Levine, from the Nonprofit Finance Fund, gets down to brass tacks, gleaning 3 things that funders can do to help nonprofits from the NFF’s most recent State of the Sector survey.
- Echoing these same themes, Dan Cardinali, President of Communities in Schools, argues in the Huffington Post Impact blog that “Philanthropists…must come to grips with their new role as capacity builders rather than innovators.” Amen to that!
- But the reality is that foundations aren’t using innovative tools already available to them. A recent study by the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy found that only 1% of US foundations are using PRIs (program-related investments), which I think is an enormous missed opportunity.
- Keeping with their ultimate goal of building the data infrastructure necessary for social change to thrive, Markets for Good announces the new BRIDGE project, which assigns all nonprofits a “numerical fingerprint” so that we can eventually understand the global social sector at scale.
- The annual unveiling of philanthropic giving numbers shows the same result, giving as a share of Gross Domestic Product has not strayed far from 2 percent over the past four decades. Suzanne Perry offers some reasons why, past failed attempts to grow the figure, and new ideas for moving the needle.
- The Dowser blog interviews Patrick Dowd, founder of the Millennial Trains Project, a ten day transcontinental train journey where each of the 40 Millennial riders profiles a crowdfunded project to build a better nation.
- If you wonder whether social media can actually move social change forward, check out this fascinating case study. A Facebook app encouraging organ donation resulted in an initial 2000% increase in organ donor sign ups. Who knows if those rates will continue, but the experiment definitely demonstrates the power of social media.
- There is a lot of hype in the world of social innovation, and two contrarians offer some thought-provoking perspectives about digging beneath the hype. First Daniel Ben-Horin is fed up with social entrepreneurs who don’t realize what a long haul social change is, when he notes “This making a difference stuff, it turns out, can be a real grind.” And Cynthia Gibson argues that we need to create a culture within the social change space that “encourages healthy skepticism.”
Photo Credit: mindfire3927
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Phil Buchanan. Phil is president of The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) and was the first chief executive of the organization. Under his leadership, the organization has grown into the leading provider of comparative performance data to large foundations and other grantmaking institutions. Phil also serves on the board of Great Nonprofits and is a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: At the Center for Effective Philanthropy you work to make philanthropists more effective at creating social change, but a large part of philanthropy is driven by emotion and passion as opposed to results and data. How do you reconcile a push towards more reasoned philanthropy with the emotional aspect that will always be present?
Phil: I understand that some people feel this tension, but to me, it’s hard to understand because I think emotion and passion and results and data can – and should – cohabitate very happily. The passionate, emotional desire to make change is what inspires the commitment to get results. If you believe deeply in helping people in need, but do it in a way that doesn’t help, what kind of emotional satisfaction do you get from that?
Fay Twersky of the Hewlett Foundation articulated this very well in an essay in Alliance Magazine. She says impact should be pursued with “a warm heart and a hard head.” I like this way of thinking about it.
Nell: One of the the things you promote at CEP is a move from evaluating nonprofits based on overhead spending to evaluating them based on achievement of results. But sadly most funders haven’t yet embraced this distinction. What will it take for funders and the general public to recognize that overhead percentages are meaningless and destructive to the nonprofit sector?
Phil: I think the adoption of better nonprofit performance assessment practices is part of the answer. The more data nonprofits can point to that can show what they achieved with their total budgets, the less relevant how that budget was divided will feel to donors.
Look, I think people tend to gravitate toward that which is available, quantifiable, and comparative. Overhead percentages are all of those things, so they become the default performance measure even those they don’t tell you anything about performance. Caroline Fiennes of the U.K. has a great new book called It Ain’t What You Give, It’s the Way You Give It, and one of the best parts is that she really slays the argument for looking at administrative costs, while also providing guidance on how to approach performance measurement.
The rub is that the only way we’ll get better overall nonprofit performance assessment practices is if funders support that work. In our research, we have seen that, contrary to the stereotypes, nonprofits care about assessment and are working on it. But they want and need much more support – financial and non-financial – from their funders. I hope that funders embrace this and support better assessment practices in service of better outcomes.
I think Mario Morino has been a powerful voice on this topic and I recommend his book, Leap of Reason, to everyone I can. I hope people are listening to Mario because measuring effectiveness isn’t some academic issue. People who work at nonprofits deeply want to be effective. Foundations want to be effective. The people we help desperately need us to be effective. So we should – and we must – figure it out and get beyond empty measures. And many have. There are some fantastic exemplars when it comes to nonprofit performance assessment. But there are not enough.
Nell: In addition to leading CEP, you also serve on the board of GreatNonprofits, which allows individuals (clients, donors, volunteers) to review nonprofits. How does the idea of individual consumer reviews of nonprofits fit into the larger movement to evaluate nonprofits based on outcomes when the average person doesn’t yet understand or embrace the idea of nonprofit performance measurement?
Phil: In some ways I think it’s very easy for anyone to grasp. You’re trying to help someone; shouldn’t you ask whether they feel they have been helped? GreatNonprofits can provide that read on whether individuals served by a nonprofit feel they’ve been helped. I think GreatNonprofits, which Perla Ni founded and leads, is really important and I also think we need other kinds of efforts to collect and analyze beneficiary perception data. We need both the kind of open, web-based opportunity GreatNonprofits offers as well as rigorous, survey-based efforts such as the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s YouthTruth initiative, which helps schools, districts, and funders hear from middle school and high school students. We’re debating school reform in this country yet many of those with power and resources don’t understand the students’ experiences. We know that those experiences correlate to outcomes, so this kind of perceptual data could be a vitally important “leading indicator” of progress.
Nell: Philanthropy tends to be fairly risk averse and focused on program funding, as opposed to the organization-building capital investments (money to build organizations rather than buy services) the nonprofit sector so desperately needs. What do you think it will take to get more philanthropists to make riskier, longer-term, organization-building investments?
Phil: I think there needs to be a greater recognition that we count on organizations to get the work done. Sounds obvious, I know, but I think funders sometimes forget.
It is stunning, and sobering, that despite the valiant advocacy of Paul Brest, Paul Shoemaker, GEO, NCRP, and others, there has been no increase in the provision of general operating support over recent years. But we also need to be careful not to pretend operating support alone is the answer. Our research demonstrates that what really matters to grantees is operating support that is multi-year and a decent chunk of change – six figures or up in annual support, ideally. So the problem isn’t just one of grant type, it’s also one of grant size.
This comes back to assessment, too, in my view. If, as a funder, you know what you’re going after, and there is an organization that is focused on the same goal and can show that it’s delivering results, why would you not provide significant, long-term, unrestricted support? And, if you can’t find organizations delivering results toward your shared goal, why wouldn’t you fund in a way that would allow them to build that capacity?
Nell: You recently wrote a fairly scathing critique of Dan Pallotta’s new book, Charity Case because you thought his approach to advocating for the nonprofit sector was misguided. Yet the nonprofit sector is largely underfunded, undervalued, and dismissed in the broader regulatory and political environment. What do you think it will take to change that reality?
Phil: Pallotta’s book doesn’t advocate for the nonprofit sector that I know – or for one that I would ever hope to see. He wants the sector to become something entirely different, something a lot more like business, something that ultimately might not be discernible at all as a distinct sector. His take on the sector is both ahistorical (he demonstrates almost no understanding of the sector’s past contributions) and ideological (he has written that “the free market is a self-correcting system” that supports our “natural desire to help each other” and “only stops working when it is interfered with”). He is infatuated with free market analogies, believes financial incentives are the key to motivating people despite research demonstrating that they are not, insists that public trust in charities is lower than in other sectors when all credible research shows the opposite, and does not seem to understand that many nonprofits work to address the problems that exist as a result of market failures. His book is a disservice to the nonprofit sector.
So, then, what do we need to do to increase the appreciation of public and government officials for the nonprofit sector?
We need to start by standing up and asserting our value as a sector separate and distinct from business and government. We need to stop buying into the fiction that being effective means being “like a business,” whatever that even means. We need to stop praising the “blurring of the boundaries” and start articulating why we need organizations that pursue mission alone rather than profit for their shareholders. We need to explain why the sector is good for our society, good for business, good for government, good for citizens: we all need the nonprofit sector to be its best for us to be our best. And we need to re-learn our history – Olivier Zunz’s recent book on U.S. philanthropy would be a good place to start.
Yes, of course there is much work to do to improve the sector, but that doesn’t mean we need to tear it down. I wrote a series of blog posts for Duke University’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society a few years ago and argued that just as it is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time, it is possible to believe both that the nonprofit sector is and has been a defining strength of this country and that it must dramatically improve its effectiveness. It is possible to both celebrate the diversity of the sector and its various organizations and push for greater clarity of organizational goals, strategies, and performance indicators. It is possible both to applaud initiatives fostering “social innovation” and the government’s embrace of this push and also recognize what has worked in the past.
We need not tear down the sector to improve it. We need not disparage all that has come before in order to chart a better future.