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The Real World is Messy. How Do You Know Your Foundation Is Making an Impact?
June 7, 2017

Aaron Lester is an experienced writer and editor in the nonprofit space. In his role as content marketing manager at Fluxx, Aaron’s goal is to collect and share meaningful stories from the world of philanthropy. This post is part of the Glasspockets’ #OpenForGood series done in partnership with the Fund for Shared Insight. The series explores new tools, promising practices, and inspiring examples showing how some foundations are opening up the knowledge that they are learning for the benefit of the larger philanthropic sector. Contribute your comments on each post and share the series using #OpenForGood.

AaronLesterIn a perfect world, foundations could learn from every mistake, build on every new piece of knowledge, and know with certainty what impact every effort has made.

Of course, we’re not in that world. We’re in the real, fast-paced world of nonprofits where messy human needs and unpredictable natural and political forces necessitate a more flexible course. In that world, it’s more challenging to measure the effects of our grantmaking efforts and learn from them. It turns out knowledge sharing is a tough nut to crack.

And without meaningful knowledge sharing, we’re left struggling to understand the philanthropic sector’s true impact — positive or negative — within a single organization or across many. The solution is a more transparent sector that is willing to share data — quantitative as well as qualitative — that tells stories of wins and losses, successes and failures—in other words, a sector that is #OpenForGood. But, of course, this is much easier said than done.

My role at Fluxx creates many opportunities for me to talk with others in the field and share stories the philanthropic sector can learn from. I recently had the chance to speak with grantmakers on this very issue.

Measuring Whose Success?

Even within a foundation, it can be difficult to truly understand the impact of a grant or other social investment.

“Lose the mindset defined by a fear of failure; instead, embrace one that drives you to search for opportunity.”

As Adriana Jiménez, director of grants management at the ASPCA and former grants manager at the Surdna Foundation, explains, it’s difficult for foundations to prove conclusively that it’s their slice of the grantmaking that has made a meaningful difference in the community. “When you collect grant-by-grant data, it doesn’t always roll up to your foundation’s goals or even your grant’s goals.”

The issue is that there’s no standardized way to measure grantmaking data, and it’s an inherently difficult task because there are different levels of assessment (grant, cluster, program, foundation, etc.), there is similar work being done in different contexts, and a lot of data is only available in narrative form.

One way to combat these challenges is to make sure your foundation is transparent and in agreement around shared goals with grantees from the start of the relationship. Being too prescriptive or attempting to standardize the way your grantees work will never create the results you’re after. Part of this early alignment includes developing clear, measurable goals together and addressing how the knowledge you’re gaining can and should translate into improvements in performance.

A grantee should never have to alter their goals or objectives just to receive funding. That sends the wrong message, and it provides the wrong incentive for grantees to participate in knowledge-sharing activities. But when you work as partners from the start and provide space for grantees to collaborate on strategy, a stronger partnership will form, and the stories your data tells will begin to be much more meaningful.

The Many Languages of Human Kindness

If sharing knowledge is difficult within one organization, it’s even more challenging across organizations.

FluxxJiménez points out that a major challenge is the complexity of foundations, as they rely on different taxonomies and technologies and discuss similar issues using different language. Every foundation’s uniqueness is, in its day-to-day work, its strength, but in terms of big-picture learning across organizations, it’s a hurdle.

Producing cohesive, comprehensive data out of diverse, fragmented information across multiple organizations is a huge challenge. Mining the information and tracking it in an ongoing way is another obstacle made more difficult because the results are often more anecdotal than they are purely quantitative. And when this information is spread out over so many regions and focus areas, the types of interventions vary so widely that meaningful knowledge sharing becomes untenable.

Gwyneth Tripp, grants manager at Blue Shield of California Foundation, also cites a capacity issue. Most foundations don’t have designated roles for gathering, tracking, organizing, and exchanging shareable data, so they resort to asking staff who already have their own sizable to-do lists. Tripp says:

“They have an interest and a desire [in knowledge sharing], but also a real challenge of balancing the everyday needs, the strategic goals, the relationships with grantees, and then adding that layer of ‘let’s learn and think about it all’ is really tough to get in.

“Also, becoming more transparent about the way you work, including sharing successes as well as failures, can open your foundation up to scrutiny. This can be uncomfortable. But it’s important to delineate between ‘failure’ and ‘opportunity to learn and improve.’”

Sparking Change

But foundations know (possibly better than anyone else) that obstacles don’t make accomplishing a goal impossible.

And this goal’s rewards are great: When foundations can achieve effective knowledge sharing, they’ll have better insights into what other funding is available for the grantees within the issues they are tackling, who is being supported, which experiments are worth replicating, and where there are both gaps and opportunities. And with those insights, foundations gain the ability to iterate and improve upon their operations, even leading to stronger, more strategic collaborations and partnerships.

Creating and promoting this kind of accessible, useful knowledge sharing starts with a few steps:

  1. Begin from within. Tracking the impact of your grantmaking efforts and sharing those findings with the rest of the sector requires organizations to look internally first. Start by building a knowledge management implementation plan that involves every stakeholder, from internal teams to grantee partners to board executives.
  1. Determine and prioritize technology needs. Improvements in technology — specifically cloud-based technology — are part of what’s driving the demand for data on philanthropic impact in the first place. Your grants management system needs to provide integrated efficiency and accessibility if you want to motivate staff participation and generate usable insights from the data you’re collecting. Is your software streamlining your efforts, or is it only complicating them?
  1. Change your mindset. Knowledge sharing can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. Lose the mindset defined by a fear of failure; instead, embrace one that drives you to search for opportunity. Promote a stronger culture of knowledge sharing across the sector by sharing your organizational practices and lessons learned. Uncover opportunities to collect data and share information across organizations.

There’s no denying that knowledge sharing benefits foundations everywhere, along with the programs they fund. Don’t let the challenges hold you back from aiming for educational, shareable data — you have too much to gain not to pursue that goal.  What will you #OpenForGood?

--Aaron Lester 

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  • Transparency Talk, the Glasspockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Foundation Center highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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