The James Irvine Foundation: Midcourse Corrections

I quoted James Irvine Foundation CEO Jim Canales yesterday in reference to his advocacy for a “culture of debate”. Jim was one of the presenters at the Demonstrating Impact session at the Council on Foundation Conference in Seattle that so impressed me.

Today I want to highlight a remarkable report that Irvine has recently released. Called Midcourse Corrections, the report tells the story of Irvine’s largest initiative in its history, an 8-year, $60 million effort to improve the educational performance of low-achieving students in California. What the report reveals is that part way through the execution of the initiative, Irvine realized that things weren’t going as planned. Their reaction? Change course and then share the story with the world at large so that other philanthropic funders can learn from their mistakes. Bravo!

You can read the full report here. Below is Jim Canales’s foreword to the report:

By the very nature of their work, foundations enjoy privileged access to knowledge. Our offices overflow with tangible manifestations of this knowledge in the form of grant reports, evaluations, assessments, and research studies. This information is complemented by the knowledge gleaned by our staff given their daily work in the field. And yet, for all of this, most of what foundations learn rarely
gets captured and shared in any formal way. Moreover, foundations are often criticized for focusing solely on the good news and positive results on those rare occasions when they do share their knowledge. This is not such a report.

In 1999, The James Irvine Foundation launched a major initiative, called Communities
Organizing Resources to Advance Learning (CORAL), to improve the educational performance of low-achieving students in California by focusing on five sites. Envisioned as an eight-year, $60 million initiative, it would be the largest undertaking by Irvine in the Foundation’s history. While we do not yet have final evaluation results (and we intend to share those early in fall 2007), we do have a story to tell about our need to change the course of the initiative midstream. It is a complicated and difficult story, for it reveals numerous shortcomings on our Foundation’s part. We felt compelled to share these lessons in the hope that others might benefit from this experience and avoid similar pitfalls.

In order to glean what specific lessons might be applicable to others, we asked Gary Walker, the former President of Public/Private Ventures, to reflect on that question and to share his observations. His firm was a key partner for us in reorienting the focus of CORAL, as you will read in this report, so he is not a dispassionate observer. At the same time, he and his colleagues brought a necessary rigor to the midcourse correction, and he participated actively in the process of implementing it. He was provided access to numerous internal documents, he interviewed key Board and staff, and this published product reflects his findings and observations, not ours, which is as we wanted it.

Finally, it bears noting that while there has been much change at Irvine since 1999, I served as Vice President at the time and was an active part of the leadership team that formulated and launched this initiative. I note this fact because it is often much easier for foundations to reflect upon (and criticize) the work of their predecessors, but that is not the case here. I assume my share of the responsibility for how this initiative unfolded, and I sought to help in its reorientation a few years ago. We are certainly committed to learning from this experience at Irvine, and I hope the lessons captured here might shed light for others in the future.