Philanthropy: Too Scared To Fail?

My latest piece is posted at Public Square Today, my blog at Washington Times Communities:

Philanthropy: Too Scared To Fail?

The paper of record for the charitable community, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, yesterday reported on a new study by the Cambridge-based Center for Effective Philanthropy. While the report itself focuses primarily on the ways foundations use strategic planning, the most dramatic finding has to do with how foundations evaluate whether their good works are working.

Ask foundations if they are having impact, and almost eight in ten (78%) foundation leaders say they are. Ask them if they actually have measures to determine whether this is true, and just 26% say they measure all of their work. (Thirty nine percent say they measure the effectiveness of some of their work.)

That’s bad enough. But push them a little harder and ask them to point to the specific measures they use to determine how effective their work is, and only 8% of foundation leaders can identify their metrics.

As a person who has managed grant-funded projects, I have watched the field of philanthropy actively embrace strategic planning and measurement. Every new grant proposal these days has to have a “logic model” (that is, a credible reason to think that it might work) and some way of assessing or proving impact. That latter gives community benefit organizations fits, because for many programs it’s hard to figure out what to measure. A soup kitchen can measure number of meals served, but what about a civic engagement effort? Just looking for an uptick in voter turnout is a ham handed approach.

Indeed, evaluation and assessment is the current Holy Grail throughout the independent sector. There have been very promising advances made in actually measuring the kinds of things that used to be seen as unmeasurable. (For instance, the National Conference on Citizenship has developed a very well-rounded measure of engagement.)

brokenmirror 012 by Flickr user Paul J Everett
brokenmirror 012 by Flickr user Paul J Everett

But it is disconcerting to learn that foundations, who are fundamentally beholden to no constituency and so ought to be able to take the most risks – are the most risk averse. So risk-averse, it seems, many would rather not look at the data to find out how well their programs are working. They don’t seem to want to look in the mirror.

Philanthropy philosopher Sean Stannard Stockton has written recently about how ironic this is in general, and has pointed out a few foundations that are bucking the trend: the James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Pittsburgh Foundation.

As a member in good standing of the nonprofit community, I urge foundations to apply the same metrics they demand of others to themselves – and, at the same time, to take on more risk. Foundations can withstand failure and they ought to embrace it. Nonprofit community benefit organizations, on the front lines and dependent on others for funding, cannot so well afford the same kinds of risks without a safety net.

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