Demonstrating Impact: Philanthropy’s Urgent Call to Action

I’m on vacation this week and will return to normal posting on Monday. This post originally appeared on April 30, 2007. During the Council on Foundations conference in Seattle I attended a session called Demonstrating Impact that really influenced my thoughts on a number of subjects. I’ve been amazed by how many times this post has been emailed around. It continues to attract readers and sits at the very top of the list of my most widely read posts.

Demonstrating Impact: Philanthropy’s Urgent Call to Action

Before I came to Seattle, I told my readers that they could assign me to cover the sessions they found most interesting. Holden Karnofsky, whose project GiveWell he refers to as The World’s First Transparent Grankmaker, dropped me the following note:

To me [Demonstrating Impact: How Foundations Can Show Their Value] is the one that you most have to go to. You have argued consistently (and strongly) for more foundation transparency. You should ask the foundations the questions you pose in your posts: why not share everything they have on a website? Why not publish things that are currently "internal," like evaluations of specific charities (as opposed to "overall programs")? Why not blog?

Mark Sedway, director of the brand new Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, had shot me an email last week encouraging me to attend. Reading the description of the session it looked like a class on how foundations can engage in better PR.

I was wrong.

Demonstrating Impact was an incredible session. The room was packed, every corner of the room full of people pressed against the walls and people outside trying to poke their heads in through the doorways. I have over five pages of single-space, type written notes. What I want to share with you isn’t just a blog post. I’m going to have to figure out how to put this all down on paper in a more comprehensive way, but I’ll share some highlights now.

The panelists were:

  • James Canales, CEO, The James Irvine Foundation
  • James Knickman, CEO, New York State Health Foundation
  • Joel Fleishman, author of The Foundation: A Great American Secret

The discussion was nominally about how foundations can do a better job letting influential Americans and the general public know about the good work they do. But at the root of this is a discussion about identifying and measuring the impact of foundation grantmaking. And at the root of that is a discussion about transparency and the sharing of information about what works AND what doesn’t work.

Yes, foundations do great things and most people don’t understand the magnitude of these good works (the very existence of emergency 911 service is attributable to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Fleishman pointed out). But what I found so incredible about the session was the advocating for communication to be designed right into the program strategy from day one. Fleishman talked about The Wallace Foundation and how they do grantmaking in teams with Program, Research and Communications all taking part in strategy design from the beginning.

To me the most important part of Fleishman’s message, the most important message of the session and maybe the conference, is that transparency is NOT about public accountability, it is about improving the sector of philanthropy. It is about improving the way that all of us do our jobs. It is about transforming ourselves from a series of silos to an integrated, robust intellectual capital platform upon which all future grantmakers, big and small, can draw.

Sharing the good works of philanthropy is not enough. A good bit of debate centered on how and why foundations should share their failures as well. To me the issue of why failures should be shared, and why doing so is not a risk for the organization if handled correctly, was nailed by James Knickman:

“We need to frame our release of “failures” as an attempt to learn. No one tells scientists they are a failure when one of their experiments don’t work!”

That’s it right there. What philanthropy is engaged in is an experiment. An experiment in how we can all make the world a better place. We don’t know what the right answer is. In fact, the “answer” is probably evolving as quickly as we can design experiments. But by being transparent, by sharing successful ideas and failed ideas. By judging ourselves not on the outcomes of each grant, but on the body of knowledge that we contribute to the field, we will truly transform philanthropy.

Knickman gave as an example a project by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. He called it “the most successful failure I’ve ever seen”, because it really changed the way people approached the issue since the project really seemed like it should have worked.

Humans don’t like to talk about their own “failures”. But halfway through the session, someone from the audience who identified herself as a professor of marketing stood up to say that people who admit their mistakes publicly are viewed with more trust afterwards. We need to reframe transparency away from some sort of thing that philanthropy is being forced to consider by outside forces and instead celebrate transparency as the mark of an organization that is truly committed to improving the field.

I’m writing furiously in a Starbucks with a half eaten sandwich next to me. I have another session I have to attend soon. The great thing about blogging is that there is no page limit and there is no final draft (the same could be said of philanthropy). I wanted to get my first impression of the Demonstrating Impact session down while it was still fresh. I’ve completely ignored important themes of the debate that I can’t cover right now. But I’ll be returning to this topic frequently.

Thanks for reading.

One Comment

  1. ewj says:

    I worked for a foundation that had great successes and big failures. We published some of those failures. All transparency did was to allow our so-called failure to eclipse the many successes in discussions. Transparency only means something if you are looking at a big vision, wanting big changes, and asking people most impacted to change.