In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, I’m talking with Jim Canales. Jim is President and CEO of The James Irvine Foundation, the largest multi-issue foundation focused exclusively on the state of California. Under his leadership, the foundation has adopted a more targeted approach in its grantmaking programs, focusing on three areas — Arts, California Democracy and Youth — of critical significance to the state’s future. Jim also serves on the boards of Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the College Access Foundation of California.
You can read past interviews in the Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: One of the four grantmaking principles of the Irvine Foundation is “Invest in Organizations,” meaning that you are committed to providing grants to build nonprofit organizations (evaluation, operating support, infrastructure). This is a pretty radical idea for most foundations. What do you think holds other foundations back from this kind of investment and what will it take to get more of them to embrace the idea of organization building as opposed to just supporting direct programs?
Jim: This question of general operating support versus project support has been an ongoing debate in the nonprofit sector, and I’d like to suggest that we may be creating for ourselves a false dichotomy that may not be helpful. I’d suggest we focus on the end goal, not the means. Let’s start by asking the question: How can we maximize impact toward the shared goals of a foundation and its grantees? By asking the question in that way, we naturally have to explore whether we are investing sufficient resources, in the right ways, so that our grantee can have the impact we both seek.
That’s how we try to approach our work at Irvine. At times, we may make grants for general operating support; in other cases, our grants would not be characterized that way – and yet we try to ensure we are investing the necessary resources for the organization to achieve its goals. That will, by necessity, require investment in the infrastructure or organizational development needs that are critical to success. Without that support, whatever project or program we’re funding can’t and won’t have the impact we both seek.
Another part of this question presupposes that foundation staff are able to recognize and address organizational needs. Because we believe that’s an important ability, you will notice that each of Irvine’s program directors has held senior positions in nonprofit organizations. Each of them brings an understanding of organizational development, financial management, board development and all that it takes for an organization to succeed and thrive.
Nell: The Irvine Foundation tends to be fairly transparent in its work and even does an annual survey to gauge how the foundation is viewed by grantees, the social sector, other philanthropists, etc. What do you gain from this survey and how do you integrate what you find into your work going forward?
Jim: This goes back to the time we adopted our current strategic directions in Arts, California Democracy and Youth. At that time, a task force of board members and senior staff explored the question: How will we know we are making a difference? Out of that exploration came a framework that we use to assess our performance on an annual basis, and one of the key elements of that framework is constituent feedback.
Feedback is critically important in philanthropy. If you look at foundation initiatives that have failed — and I would include some of our own — one common theme is that feedback loops were not sufficiently robust. Grantees often are reluctant to come forward with bad news or criticism. And our sector doesn’t have a strong track record of consistently gathering candid feedback from our various constituents, whether that’s grantees or other stakeholders.
Phil Buchanan and his colleagues at the Center for Effective Philanthropy have played a catalytic role in improving philanthropy’s feedback loops through CEP’s Grantee Perception Report and other assessment tools. Irvine has commissioned two grantee surveys from CEP over the last seven years. And last year, we commissioned a separate stakeholder survey gathering opinions from leaders in our fields and the nonprofit and philanthropy community in general.
In each of these cases, we have found the data immensely valuable and used it to improve our performance. And we’ve tried to be transparent about it: We posted the results of the grantee perception reports on our website, and, more recently, I described what we had learned from the stakeholder report of 2012. In all instances we have sought to describe how we intended to use these findings to improve our work going forward.
There does remain, however, one area we have not fully explored: So far, we haven’t done very much to gather feedback from the people who benefit from the work that we support, which is obviously a critical constituent for any foundation. But we are following what others are doing in this regard to see what they have learned and how it might apply to us. An example of that is YouthTruth, the national survey of high school students that CEP developed in partnership with the Gates Foundation. I commend the article that Phil and others authored in the recent Stanford Social Innovation Review on this very topic.
Nell: One of the things that came out of your survey was a desire to see the Foundation take more risks. What does taking more risks mean to the Irvine Foundation and how do you think you will go about doing that in the coming years?
Jim: We have to start by defining risk. At Irvine, we’re not interested in risk for risk’s sake. Rather we are trying to understand the relationship between risk and reward and our tolerance for ambiguity and even failure. In the context of philanthropy, I think risk is about trying to balance the need to invest our resources wisely, while also taking advantage of the fact that we have very few restrictions on how we invest those resources.
For those of us in endowed foundations, we have much to learn about risk-taking from our investment colleagues who think about it in the context of managing a foundation’s endowment. And we have benefited from discussions amongst our program and investment teams on this subject. Our investment colleagues are willing to take risks on investments that offer the potential for greater return. But they know that to maximize returns over the long run, you need to have a balanced portfolio. So it’s not just about taking lots of risks; it’s about balance and a portfolio approach.
And ultimately, part of taking risk is about being comfortable with failure and learning from it. As part of our annual report on the foundation’s progress, we have a section that covers what we’re learning from our programmatic work and how those lessons can be used to further improve our strategies.
Nell: The Irvine Foundation is very much focused on evaluation, yet outcomes measurement is still difficult for the majority of nonprofits to achieve, given that most nonprofit funding sources aren’t interested in funding it. How do we get past the catch-22 of not being able to find funding for evaluation, but increasingly needing evaluation to get funding?
Jim: We approach evaluation as a tool that enables us to understand the effectiveness of key programs and initiatives, to learn from the progress and challenges along the way, and to demonstrate the value of approaches that will have an impact. In our experience, it is important to think carefully at the outset about what stage of development the work is in and to align the evaluation accordingly. We cannot evaluate everything, so we need to be selective about when and why we choose to use this tool.
I see evidence of a change underway in how the social sector and philanthropy approach evaluation. There is emerging greater interest in tools for measuring progress and impact. The proliferation of assessment tools available from organizations like CEP and PerformWell suggest that we’re moving beyond talking about the problem to developing real solutions.
As a complement to this, we are broadening our understanding about the purpose of evaluation. More and more foundations view evaluation less as the thumbs-up or thumbs-down audit and more as a tool for learning, strategic refinement and improvement. It’s been interesting to see foundations create senior-level roles like Chief Learning Officer or Director of Strategic Learning, as an indication of the value and importance of this work. I am of the belief that the more we shift toward evaluation as a tool for learning and improvement, the more likely we can have the impact we seek. At the same time, that is not to suggest that we should not be clear-eyed about whether we are achieving what we set out to achieve, which is an important role for evaluation activity.
Nell: In 2010 President Obama appointed you to the White House Council for Community Solutions to come up with recommendations about how to address the large population of Americans aged 16 to 24 who are not in school or work. What do you think the role of the federal government should be in creating innovative solutions to “disconnected youth” in America? And what do you think is the role of government more broadly in social innovation?
Jim: It was a privilege to serve on the White House Council for Community Solutions with a group of committed and dedicated leaders from across the country. The experience underscored yet again the critical importance of building relationships between philanthropy and government. In fact, an interesting study on this topic of cross-sector partnerships was recently published by the University of Southern California’s Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy. One of its conclusions is that in many cities and states, we’re starting to see a concerted effort to develop and institutionalize more of these partnerships.
We know that many of the innovations that foundations are working on need the engagement and partnership of government to increase their impact and to bring those solutions to scale. A good example for Irvine is the ways in which our Youth program is partnering with state and local government to reform high school education in California.
For the past six years, our Youth program has been working to build the field of Linked Learning — an educational approach that integrates rigorous academics with career-based learning. It has demonstrated success at increasing high school graduation and college attendance rates. And after a lot of work, Linked Learning is now available to students in nine school districts in California.
This year, thanks to a pilot program sponsored by the state Education Department, an additional 63 school districts have committed to Linked Learning. When the program is fully implemented, Linked Learning will be available to more than a third of high school students in California. That’s not something that Irvine or the nonprofit sector could ever have done by itself. So for the state to be launching this kind of pilot program underscores the importance of these partnerships.
As for the work of the White House Council and its focus on what we called “opportunity youth,” the fact that the White House raised this up as a critical issue for our country was really important for this often-ignored population. And the Council’s work continues to live on: most recently, FSG issued a report that serves as a framework for how different stakeholders can improve outcomes for this population of youth who are neither in school nor participating in the job market.
For our part, the focus on out-of-school youth complements the work of our Youth program. A little over a year ago, we launched an initiative to extend the Linked Learning approach to this population as a way to help them re-engage with education. Improving outcomes for this population is so critical — it represents an immense opportunity for our economy and society and for the youth and their families who want to create a better future for themselves.
In this month’s Social Velocity blog interview, we’re talking with Chris Earthman, Executive Director for the Aragona Family Foundation. For the last 8 years Chris has also worked for Austin Ventures, the largest venture capital firm in the Southwestern US. Chris has over 15 years of experience at the intersection of nonprofit and for-profit enterprises, including helping to establish the Micron Technology Foundation (NYSE: MU), the corporate social responsibility vehicle for the largest private employer in Idaho.
You can read past interviews in our Social Innovation Interview Series here.
Nell: As head of a regional family foundation, how do you and your board view some of the innovations happening in the social sector like impact investing, social entrepreneurship, etc.?
Chris: I find it refreshing that innovation is happening in our sector, though I’m a little surprised at the slow rate of uptake among funders. The family foundation I currently run is a spend-down foundation, and that’s a decision our trustees made consciously in order to see the fruits of social investments now vs. spending significantly less in order to maintain a corpus indefinitely. There is ample discussion out there among funders, but (and I’m as guilty as anyone) very rarely much action to back it up. We’re trying to selectively dip our toe into the water in terms of funding social innovations, infrastructure, ecosystem improving organizations, selective M&A activity among our grantees and discussing the idea of mission-related investing.
Nell: Speaking of mission-related investing (where a foundation invests part of their corpus into for-profit social enterprises that give both a social and financial return to the foundation), it’s a pretty radical concept for most foundations. What do you think it would take for the idea of mission-related investing to take off for smaller foundations across the country?
Chris: Let me preface my comments with the fact that we are a spend-down foundation and therefore have not made a meaningful investment allocation to mission-related investing, so I’m by no means an expert here. However, I think there need to be more visible intermediaries and investment products targeting the social impact market. We’ve seen some great progress over the last few years with groups like Sonen Capital, but it’s still a very nascent industry. One of the biggest barriers we’ve come across is the difficulty in quantifying the social return in a format that is comprehensible to trustees. That is starting to change with ratings intermediaries like GIIRS, but recognition and uptake are essentially non-existent among most of the foundations that I interact with. I know that you and many others have opined on the progress here, but it’s still not something that is on many regional/ smaller Foundation’s radars. It may take a few forward thinking Foundation trustees to step up and take a chance to show others that it’s ok to think outside of the endowment model mindset.
Nell: Much of your non-Foundation time is spent working for a venture capital firm where the idea of Mergers and Acquisitions is second nature; however this is a fairly uncommon concept in the nonprofit world. Do we want to see more of it in the nonprofit sector and if so, how do we make that happen?
Chris: Given the fragmentation of the nonprofit ecosystem across the country and the large proportion of small organizations , I think there is certainly an opportunity for more instances of Mergers and Acquisitions (M&A), particularly in cases where organizations need to grow above the $500K/ yr threshold. However, my experience is that TRUE collaboration—the accretive kind where you can quantify cost savings and/or program growth and ultimately better outcomes/ social change—is very rare in the nonprofit world simply because there are few external catalysts to get the discussion started and ultimately finished.
We’ve funded a few different M&A efforts over the last couple of years and my takeaway is that the M’s work much better than the A’s. I hate to keep pointing the finger back at myself and fellow funders, but there is a certain level of risk aversion where we’d rather ensure a successful purchase of additional direct services vs. really giving organizations what they need to grow. I’ve seen too many truly innovative nonprofits unable to successfully scale past the $300-500K/yr revenue threshold because of the required organizational capital required to make that pivot.
But I’m by no means idealistic here. While M&As sound sexy, there are many times where poor execution, interpersonal dynamics, Board conflicts, bad timing, or any number of external factors out of your control result in an outcome that may actually harm the organizations seeking to gain efficiencies through scale and collaboration. There are integration costs, donor overlap, brand/ identity battles, etc. that always take much more time, effort, and money before you see any of the accretive results that initially drove the decision to bring the organizations together. The same goes for the appetite of funders to backstop Executive Director salaries and/or fund transaction costs related to a merger discussion. In my opinion, lack of funder appetite is probably one of the biggest barriers to more M&A in our sector.
Nell: As a rule foundations are less interested in making capital investments in nonprofit organizations (funding things like infrastructure, systems, technology, evaluation). Why do you think that is and what can help move philanthropists to understand the need for capacity capital?
Chris: I think there are two reasons:
- The idea of “expressive philanthropy” is fairly well ingrained and many folks start out their philanthropy work wanting to “put their stamp” on a particular cause or portfolio of organizations. The challenge is that many foundations knee jerk into a risk-averse grants process that may or may not fit with their place in the ecosystem. Part of this is based on the endowment model of funding, which more often than not results in a formal, tedious grant application process. This may not be the best way to identify and screen potential grantees!
Let me acknowledge that I spent the first few years of my career as a grant writer, so I completely understand the time and effort that go into these proposals. This experience informs (or biases) my “anti-process” grantmaking strategy wherein we prefer to put the “search cost” onus on myself as a funder and try to respect the time and effort of the ever lean development dollars being spent by grant seeking organizations. It may sound like an arrogant “don’t call us, we’ll call you” approach to grantmaking, but I’ve found that making the grant process donor-centric vs. grantee centric allows the system to operate more efficiently.
- While philanthropic dollars should be fungible, the ability to restrict funds creates a tiered system of revenue for grantees. It always strikes me as a little odd that funders get so hung up about funding direct services vs. infrastructure and overhead and restrict their funding to such a degree. Ask any VC how their portfolio companies use their investments and you’ll find more often than not it pays for the critical growth functions like Sales and Marketing. You can’t grow without infrastructure, and unfortunately our current giving culture is much less amenable to that. I’d even go so far as to say the framework/ process that most funders use to select their grantees are, by their very nature, skewed towards less risk and greater restriction. Therein lies one of the structural problems in our industry. Even something as simple as separating the motivation of our giving (“we really like your yy program initiative…”) from the structure of our giving (“…so here’s an unrestricted grant to spend where you feel it is most needed”) makes a huge difference for the lives of our grantees. It also shows the Executive Director that you value their ability as a manager to make decisions from the inside.
Nell: How do we get funders to get take more risk with their investments and be willing to fund things that have a higher risk, like growth capital, mergers, research & development, but could result in huge social payoff?
Chris: Similar to my earlier comments about impact investing and grant processes, I think funders need to see more celebrated instances of both success AND failure. Another solution is using less restrictive grant processes that are a better fit with the size and scope of your particular foundation. The fact that you can restrict grants does not automatically mean that you should. Until we embrace the idea that its ok to take a risk with our funding (and have a process that embraces this), even if it doesn’t turn out the way we planned, we’ll be much closer to creating an environment ripe for some of the larger social change that motivates our philanthropic giving in the first place.
In the July installment of the Social Velocity interview series we are talking with Paul Tarini of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. You can read our previous Social Velocity blog interviews with Clara Miller and Kevin Jones.
Paul Tarini is the head of the Foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, which actively seeks innovative projects that can lead to fundamental breakthroughs in health and health care. Because the Pioneer team is dedicated to thinking and talking about new ideas and groundbreaking approaches, including those from nontraditional sources and fields, Pioneer enables the Foundation to make conceptual leaps and take risks in grantmaking that would otherwise not be possible. Since funding is so critical to making social innovation a reality, we thought Paul would have a unique perspective on what funders can do to incentivize social innovation.
Nell: The Pioneer portfolio strikes me as a more risk-tolerant approach to giving than typical foundations are used to. Why is RWJF more comfortable with the risks inherent in this kind of portfolio of projects?
Paul: RWJF is comfortable with the higher risk, unconventional, future-facing ideas Pioneer supports because it first identified a specific niche that needed to be filled within the institutional ecology. We call that ecology our Impact Framework. It was conceived of at a time when RWJF was thinking hard about how we organized our work. The Impact Framework helps us understand our grantmaking as a whole, so, not just what do the grants in a particular area add up to, but what does the whole enterprise add up to. As we were thinking about the impact we wanted to have, we knew we needed to work in fewer, more focused teams that were/are accountable for specific outcomes.
But we realized that while focus brings power and discipline, it also can be limiting. We wanted a way to look out beyond the work of these targeted teams. We were thinking about how to stay relevant for the long run as a philanthropy that operates on a national scale. We felt that in addition to the targeted work being done, we needed a place devoted to the exploration of new ideas, where we could bring in new concepts, work with different people, and support more unconventional and future-facing ideas. Such work could help RWJF stay fresh, bring in new ideas and new grantees, continue to grow, stay ahead of the curve. And, if we found some real winners, health and health care would benefit from the outcomes of those projects.
Out of this came Pioneer. Here are some examples of the work we’ve supported…We funded a natural resources economist to work on the problem of antibiotic resistance (Don’t approach it as an infectious diseases problem; think about our stock of antibiotics as a natural resource that needs to be managed and develop new policy from that perspective; we’ve been funding research into whether and how digital games can be effective therapeutic interventions (Can a game that uses a breathing tube as the controller that moves characters around the screen help kids with cystic fibrosis improve their breathing therapy?); we’ve funded early work exploring whether there are specific health strengths which, if strengthened more, could serve to forestall disease and mitigate effects once disease strikes. We’re also supporting work that builds platforms that could produce lots of new knowledge and improve care, including Kaiser Permanente’s Research Program on Genes, the Environment and Health; and, efforts to link electronic health records databases with millions of patient records in order to learn much faster about what works for patients (Rapid Learning).
Nell: I understand that the Pioneer program has a rolling unsolicited application process, but I imagine you probably need to do a good bit of on-the-ground scoping and cultivation of ideas in order to get the most promising projects into the portfolio. How do you create a deal flow for innovative projects?
Paul: This is a constant challenge for us. We do have an open door, and we do accept unsolicited proposals at any time. But most of the proposals that come in through this door are not good fits for Pioneer. We were set up to explore unconventional and untested approaches to problems, to bring in ideas from other disciplines, to look to the future. We were not set up to support projects that promise incremental improvements, however important those improvements may be. We look for projects with the potential for transformative change, the kind of change that can reach beyond a single discipline or group. Most of what comes in unsolicited doesn’t meet that standard. Finding ideas takes work. And because we look for ideas across the breadth of health and health care, we can’t focus on just one haystack to look for needles. We network. We connect with interesting people at conferences, we go to events, we take meetings and phone calls, we visit people. We are experimenting with other ways to source ideas. We’ve had some success with open-source competitions, though the back end, taking a winning idea and creating a fundable project, takes time. We are putting a lot of time and energy into social media right now as another way to build networks and find ideas. Half of me wishes there was an easier way to find ideas, but I suspect that easier would also mean more passive on our part and passive is really boring.
Nell: You currently only invest in nonprofit projects, correct? Do you see the potential for investing in for-profit or hybrid organizations, through mission-related investing, down the road, particularly as social entrepreneurship grows and for-profit solutions to healthcare issues become more prevalent?
Paul: While the majority of our investments, our funding, are in the form of grants to nonprofit organizations, there is nothing that precludes us from supporting for-profit entities. The largest award to come out of Pioneer to date—$15.6 million—went to a for-profit, Archimedes, Inc. However, before we can make an award to a for-profit, we need to clearly establish that RWJF’s dollars are going to fund an activity with a clear charitable purpose that relates to our mission. This is just an additional test we need to meet. The challenge we face on Pioneer is less about whether an entity is a nonprofit, a hybrid, or a for-profit. Our challenge is whether that entity is doing work that isn’t merely an improvement, but is doing something unconventional, disruptive and future-facing and could produce breakthroughs in health and health care. If we’re convinced the work meets that standard, we can usually figure out how to fund it.
Nell: What is holding philanthropy back from becoming more innovative and/or risk tolerant?
Paul: People who spend more time observing philanthropies are better suited to answer this question than I am. That said, I think it’s hard to ask this question about philanthropy as a sector. Philanthropies have a lot of latitude; you can’t assume they are fairly similar and that we can generalize our way to an answer. In the same way there are differences between a business that employs 200 people and one with 20,000, there are big differences between a multi-billion-dollar philanthropy and a small community foundation. Political contexts differ, staff sophistication differs (bigger isn’t always more sophisticated), boards and donors have varying levels of influence, so I think there’s a range of reasons — philanthropy by philanthropy — for being less risk-tolerant.
If I had to pick one reason, it would be that there’s no inherent reason for a philanthropy to be innovative and highly risk-tolerant. A lot of good can come—and has come—from philanthropies that are cautious. As I noted above, the decision at RWJF to have a portfolio that takes on more risk came from an institutional recognition of the long-term value to us—and to the field—of such investments. So the niche-in-the-institutional-ecology point is important here. Also, frankly, our ecology is much larger than most, and so it can be more diverse. Other philanthropies would need to work though their own reasons to embrace more risk-taking.
Nell: The nonprofit capital market overall is fairly immature compared to the capital market of the for-profit world. Do you see other foundations creating new giving programs or financial vehicles to expand the types of capital available to nonprofits?
Paul: There is a great discussion and a lot of effort being devoted to maturing the nonprofit capital market. More money, philanthropic and otherwise, is examining and entering this space; and, more nonprofits are thinking about what they need to do to operate in this space. It’s very exciting and I definitely think we’ll see more of that over time. But I also think it will be years before we see a robust capital market for nonprofits. As much interest as there is in moving into this space, the amount of money there and the portion of nonprofits positioned to take advantage of such a capital market is still relatively small compared with traditional ways of financing and operating.
Also, I think it will take a while to understand when it makes sense for nonprofits to access capital markets and when more traditional sources of philanthropic funding are more appropriate. Philanthropies need to understand better—given what they’re trying to achieve—when a traditional grant makes the most sense and when some other financial vehicle does.
Nell: What do you think is the potential for greater partnerships between foundations and individual investors to bring more capital to social entrepreneurs, particularly in the healthcare sector?
Paul: Good question. For large foundations such as RWJF, I think we need to consider carefully when looking at when individual investors as funding partners makes sense. The projects we fund, by their nature, tend to be large. The effort involved in soliciting individual investors might not be worth the result unless we are looking at folks who have considerable wealth at their disposal. It’s a lift when you’re trying to aggregate a bunch of $100,000 contributions to reach $5 million; fundraising is not a core competency of ours. I do think, though, that efforts such as the Social Impact Exchange, where individual dollars would flow directly to the organizations that need them, make a lot of sense. So I think the opportunities for individual investors to participate as true funding partners on projects with RWJF are probably limited, though we are open to them if they make sense. But there are definitely opportunities for foundations such as RWJF to help individual investors find groups that are worthy recipients.
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