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The Journey from Practice to Theory: Developing a Foundation’s Theory of Change
February 7, 2013

Mary Gregory is the executive director of the Bella Vista Foundation, one of twenty-two foundations managed by Pacific Foundation Services (PFS). She has been with the company for fourteen years and enjoys the variety of philanthropic styles demonstrated by PFS’s clients.

Gregory-100I have the privilege of managing a number of grantmaking portfolios for PFS foundations, and each has taught me important lessons about the art and science of grantmaking. Most recently, as a result of many years of work with the Bella Vista Foundation (BVF), I had the opportunity to learn first-hand what it takes to develop a foundation’s theory of change. But first, let me give you some background. The Bella Vista Foundation (BVF) was started in 1999, and within a few years of making general grants to benefit children/youth, the board decided that one of its purposes should be to make a difference in the lives of children prenatal to three years old from low-income families in four Bay Area counties.

In 2007, after reviewing data, reading studies on infant development, and talking to experts in the field, BVF decided to fund programs that help parents and caregivers cope with stress and anxiety in order to prevent more serious mental health issues from arising which might negatively affect the health social and emotional development of their infants and toddlers. The foundation looks for high quality, culturally aware programs for parents and caregivers that may use any of a number of strategies to create well-being and community, including exercise, classes (such as parenting education), community activism, and peer counseling. These programs can be initiated by nonprofit organizations, county departments, or joint efforts between counties and independent organizations.

In 2012, with a grantmaking capability for this program area that currently amounts to about $1.2M per year, Bella Vista Foundation began to think about whether it could measure its impact. How could the foundation tell if parents and caregivers of very young children were actually better able to cope with anxiety and stress? BVF now encourages its grantees to set goals for their programs. Some programs already measure impact on their clients, using any of a variety of measurement tools that are easily available, to see if levels of stress and anxiety decrease in a meaningful way as a result of participation. Collection of this data also helps grantees to see if they need to revise their programs to get better results.

We realize impact measurement is tricky for foundations, as our investments are just part of a whole ecosystem of funding. BVF’s thinking is that if we aggregate the results of our grantees, we will at least know how many individuals were positively affected by these programs, and what percentage of the participants that represents. Through grantmaking, we are also getting a picture of how many agencies and/or nonprofits in each of our four counties are addressing parental stress and anxiety in families with young children. When Bella Vista Foundation is able to aggregate the programs’ results, we will have a sense of whether our grants are making a difference, and can also create a body of shared learning that will benefit our grantees beyond the grant investment.

During the past year, in order to lead the way and to better understand the process, the foundation created and publicly shared its own Theory of Change (TOC). As board and staff crafted the TOC, we decided that this might also be a useful tool for our grantees, so we worked with a consultant to help us standardize our language, to review the foundation’s draft version, and to lead a workshop for grantees to get them started on creating their own TOCs. BVF then offered small technical assistance grants to six organizations that wanted to continue and refine their work, which is ongoing—the work will take place between now and early summer. We now know how difficult it is to create a Theory of Change! Foundation staff members are creating customized versions of our TOC for each of the four counties in which BVF makes grants because each county is different, so our activities and funding in each county will need to be customized. Bella Vista Foundation hopes that we can use this new set of tools to measure our progress towards our goals and our vision, and make our own course corrections when needed.

--Mary Gregory

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