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What is Effectiveness in Foundation Work?
December 14, 2011

(Bill Somerville is Executive Director of the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation. This post is a response to a session on Foundation Transparency and Effectiveness, held in San Francisco, December 6, 2011, by the Center for Effective Philanthropy and the Foundation Center.)

Bill SomervilleFoundation critics say it isn't enough to have passion and caring about your work. You need to be effective. Maybe the retort is you can't be effective unless you have passion and caring in your work. Nonetheless, what does effectiveness mean?

At PVF effective means getting out of the office and finding people doing outstanding work -- and funding them. It means trusting these people and giving them money to spend at their discretion without requiring them to spend 25+ hours applying for funds, regardless if there is a common application form, as was advocated. It means not holding foundation processes sacred and getting money to people when they need it and not having them wait months for a decision.

Does transparency and glass pockets help effectiveness?Does transparency and glass pockets help effectiveness? I don't know. What difference does it make for people to know foundation salaries? If it does make a difference, then we are talking about accountability not effectiveness. Is the foundation accountable in being efficient, frugal, responsible, responsive and productive?

Foundations have a special place in the community in that they are answerable to themselves. They are independent and have maximum latitude to do their work. They have a unique asset in that their money is not political, not in competition with anything or anyone, and they have no ax to grind. So, what are the factors of excellence in the exercise of philanthropy? A question foundation personnel should ask themselves every day.

One is leadership. Foundations should exercise leadership in their willingness to venture where others haven't gone, to take risks, to think into the future rather than indulge themselves in endless paper. A leader is one who brings out the best in others. Isn't this what foundations should be doing?

Another factor of excellence is modesty. Money is the tool of philanthropy and money is power. Foundation personnel must understand that it is not their money nor is it their power. Foundations are investing funds in people and programs worthy of the investment. They are not "giving money away."

This commentary is meant to create a dialogue and stimulate other people to add their thoughts on what makes for effectiveness.

-- Bill Somerville

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Bill - thanks for your thoughtful push-back for a broader understanding of "effectiveness." Philanthropy should be big-tent enough to respect and support the type of work you describe *and* complex evidence-based initiatives.

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About Transparency Talk

  • 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."

    The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of the Foundation Center.

    Questions and comments may be
    directed to:

    Janet Camarena
    Director, Transparency Initiatives
    Foundation Center

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