Today’s interview is with James Canales. Jim is president and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, a 1.7 billion dollar private foundation dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California.
You can read a complete background report on Jim here (feel free to add your own background notes via the comments). Briefly: Jim was one of the panelists at the Demonstrating Impact session at the Council on Foundations conference in Seattle this year (you can read my write-ups here and here). The Irvine Foundation recently released a report called Midcourse Corrections (I wrote about it briefly here). After committing to a $60 million initiative, the biggest in their history, the Irvine Foundation realized that all was not going as planned. They released the Midcourse Corrections report to help other foundations avoid the mistakes they made. This is exactly the sort of knowledge sharing that I’ve been advocating.
Make sure to enter the Comments section at the bottom of this post to follow along with and participate in a follow up conversation with Jim.
Expand this post using the link below to read the transcript.
Sean: Hello, and welcome to the Tactical Philanthropy podcast. I’m Sean Stannard-Stockton, author of the Tactical Philanthropy Blog, and Principal and Director of Tactical Philanthropy at Ensemble Capital. My guest today is James Canales. Jim is president and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, a 1.7 billion dollar private foundation dedicated to expanding opportunity for the people of California. Hi, Jim. It’s nice to have you on the show.
Jim: Oh, thanks very much, Sean. Nice to be here.
Sean: So, Jim, I’d like to just jump right in and start talking about Midcourse Corrections. I’ve blogged about that some already. You released this report in May of this year and detailed a number of problems you were seeing with your largest initiative in the foundation’s history. What led to the release of the report, and how did Midcourse Corrections further the mission of the Irvine Foundation?
Jim: Well, in our case, the Midcourse Correction Report, which we commissioned Gary Walker, who is the President Emeritus of Public/Private Ventures, to write, was really an effort on our part to take a step back from an activity that we undertook in 2003, which was to take a very close and hard look at an initiative that at that point was several years in its course, and a decision we made in 2003 to make a number of fundamental changes based on a close look at the initiative in that point in time.
And now, as we near the conclusion of this eight-year effort on our foundation’s part, we thought it might be valuable to share some of the lessons that we learned from making that Midcourse Correction, that we thought might be of value not just to us, as we think of other complicated initiatives in the future work of the Irvine Foundation, but perhaps to other philanthropies, given that these kinds of multi-site, big, complicated long-term initiatives are something that you tend to see across other foundations.
So it was really our desire and effort to share what we had learned from our experience in an effort to inform the field and, hopefully, in an effort to prevent others from perhaps making some of the same mistakes that we made a number of years ago.
Sean: You know, I really like this concept, that foundations, or any philanthropists, can view themselves as a member of a field, and therefore, doing work to help other philanthropists is in your own self-interest as opposed to a truly competitive market situation where your own success is all that matters. But releasing a report like Midcourse Corrections is relatively rare. I mean, there are some other instances of it, but do you think that that’s because the Irvine Foundation has a different mindset in viewing these issues, or is this something we’re just going to start seeing a lot of across the field?
Jim: Well, it’s my hope that we are going to see more of this across the field. And I was pleased that, there was no collusion here, if you will, that the Hewlett Foundation also recently released a report around a major initiative, a neighborhood initiative, that they had undertaken for many years. Paul Brest, the president of that foundation, commissioned a similar report to look at some of the lessons learned from that effort. These two reports came out at roughly the same time.
Actually, in my mind, I hope that it’s a refreshing signal that we will see other foundations taking a step back from time to time and finding ways to share lessons from the experiences that they learned.
One of the things I noted in the foreword to our report is that one of the many great privileges that we have as a private foundation is access to knowledge. We have so much [unintelligble] in our institutions because of the work that we are able to do with other partners. The question is how can we try to capture that knowledge and share it in ways that might be useful to others? That’s really what we’re trying to do through this report.
Sean: I’ve been writing a lot about transparency on the Tactical Philanthropy Blog. I believe that transparency is most important not as a public accountability issue, but as a highly effective way for foundations to increase their own effectiveness and to help all foundations complete their mission.
However, I recently had a foundation employee leave the following comment on a blog that I’ll quote from: “I worked for a foundation that had great success and big failures. We published some of these failures. All transparency did was to allow our so-called failure to eclipse the many successes in discussion.” How would you respond to this view of transparency?
Jim: Well, I think it gets back to what you’re saying, which is I think transparency is a mindset, it’s a value, and it’s something that ought to permeate across the foundations. I think that in the case of the institution that maybe every once in a while releases a report that talks about a mistake that it might have made or an effort that perhaps didn’t go as they had planned, and that basically becomes their sole effort at transparency — I can understand that that may lead some to feel that all attention had been diverted to that effort.
But if you’re an institution that has transparency as a core value and, therefore, it’s manifested in a whole number of ways, not just through the release of reports that talk about mistakes, but also through ways to share some of the work that your grant partners are doing, through dynamic websites that help people to access stories of the work that you are supporting, as well as just basically to access your grants, as well as making an effort to be out in the field at conferences, to be a visible partner to others in the fields in which you work. All of that, to me, bespeaks a commitment to transparency.
So therefore, transparency, for me and for our foundation, is really about being open about the work that we are doing: hopefully, the successes that we are able to support as well as ways that perhaps things didn’t go as we had hoped they’d have gone — not just to say we made a mistake, but also to say, “Here’s what we learned from it, and here’s how it might inform our own work going forward, and potentially might inform the work of others.”
Sean: Jim, I attended and wrote about the Demonstrating Impact session at the Council on Foundations Conference this year in Seattle. In fact, my post on the session has become the most widely read post in the blog’s history. During that session, your fellow panelist James Knickman said, “We need to frame our release of failures as an attempt to learn. No one tells scientists they’re failures when their experiments don’t work.”
This view of philanthropy as a field that should be characterized by experimentation, risk-taking, and thinking really far outside of that box fits with my own view of where philanthropy needs to go. Do you agree with this prescription for philanthropy, and if so, what do you think prevents the field from making this shift?
Jim: Well, I absolutely agree with Jim Knickman. I think that it is true that philanthropy, at least our value here at Irvine, and I think it’s the same for Jim as well, is that our role is to foster innovation, to take risks, to make bets, and to test hypotheses in the work that we do — and obviously this is all work that we do through others, not just on our own.
And as a result, because we are doing that kind of work, I think it is important to take a step back from time to time and figure out, “What are we learning from the risks that we’re taking? What are we learning from the bets that we’re making? What are we learning from the hypotheses that we’re testing that may well lead us to find ways to improve upon the work that we do going forward.”
To me, foundation work is very much a give-and-take process. You test the strategy, you learn from the test of the strategy, and then hopefully you refine that strategy as you go along. So, for me it’s very much at the core of the way we approach our work here, I think something that is a good movement in philanthropy. In terms of why this may not be a value that’s been part of the field over time? I’m not sure that I know that much about that or the motives of others, but I can simply say that in our case, I just think having this agenda of finding ways to share our knowledge broadly is an important value, and it’s something that we’re committed to.
Sean: If you think about that analogy that Jim made, comparing scientists and philanthropists, scientists have that culture of sharing information, and they don’t view it as admitting their failures. It’s simply sharing what we know. That’s a cultural value that we have as scientists. It’d be wonderful to see that as a widespread cultural trait in philanthropy.
Jim: I would agree with that and I think one of the challenges, one of the obstacles — and you have probably a number of obstacles that get in the way from our ability to have that mind set — is: If you think about it, in philanthropy in private foundations at least, the market force is really to make grants.
You have budgets to meet, you have payouts that you have to meet and the way that our institutions are structured is we are structured as grant makers. We make grants.
The question for me is, how much time are we able to then devote to monitoring those grants in an effective way and to thereby accumulating and gaining knowledge from the work that we are doing from the grants that we made a year ago, two years ago, and then finding ways to roll that knowledge up in a way that is accessible to others.
I think that’s one of the challenges. Because I think if you are trying to keep your staff fairly lean and I think many of us in foundations make an effort to keep our staffs lean and an effort to really invest largest possible resources in the community and you have pressure to make grants, and you have board dockets that you need to attend to.
I think it’s often hard to have the discipline to find the time to take a step back and say: “What are we learning from this work?” and not what just are we learning in terms of our internal conversation.
Obviously I think all foundations have those conversations on an ongoing bases but how do we find the time and carve out the space to then share that learning whether it’s through an article on a website or whether it’s through publishing these kinds of reports or whether it’s writing up [unintelligble], or serving on panels we have an opportunity to take a step back and reflect.
I guess it’s my hope that we will see in philanthropy a higher premium on that kind of activity. I think it ultimately enriches the field as a whole.
Sean: That would be great. Absolutely. Yeah, Jim Knickman made another comment in the session that was very well put in responding to a question on measuring impact. Knickman said, “A good soup is made up of lots of parts, it is hard to identify if the garlic or the carrots is what’s making it good. But you can identify if the soup is good. If you’re making a bad soup, do something different.”
How do you think that the impact of philanthropy can be best measured in service of providing us today with what we need to improve as a field?
Jim: Well, I think you need to begin by unpacking the term impact. And by saying, what do we mean by having impact? The way we thought about it in our foundation is that we have taken a fairly holistic view of that.
I mean, clearly I think as foundations and given where our resources go, priority needs to be on finding ways to measure and to assess whether we are having impacts through the grants that we are making to the partners that we are engaging with and obviously toward the ends that we are agreeing to when we support work.
Obviously there is work that we can do, we can have grantees self report on their progress toward goals and objectives. From time to time we can hire evaluators to assess the effectiveness in particular initiatives or cluster of grants that we’re undertaking and I think that’s all well and good and foundations are doing that and it is a good and worthy and important activity to undertake.
At the same time it’s been our view here at Irvine that we try to take a broader approach in terms of thinking about our performance. And we’ve created something we call a Performance Assessment Framework which we’ve described on our website.
This was something which we engaged with our board a couple of years ago and when the outcome of our process was the development of a framework that we wanted to test for a few years primarily to report back to our board on how we assess our performance as an institution.
We then decided not just to obviously work with our board and to share the results with our board but also to share that publicly, again to make hopefully a contribution and to develop our own thinking about this by sharing it broadly with the field.
One of the things we found when we undertook this process is there weren’t a lot of examples out there of foundations that have thought holistically about the way they assess their performances in institution.
There were some examples. The Lumina Foundation does this, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund had some examples, to Robert Wood Johnson Foundation where James Knickman worked, had some good examples. So those were good examples we drew from to create our framework.
And I won’t go into details. Anyone who’s interested can go to www.irvine.org and find the Performance Assessment Framework on there. But it effectively looks at three areas related to programmatic impact and then three years related to organizational impact.
The whole effort is, again, to create a holistic picture that says, “How do we as an institution think about our performance and assess our performance and report to our board on an annual basis on our performance?” Which, again, takes a more holistic view, obviously program impact is a big part of it but we think that there are other dimensions that an institution like ours ought to be looking at.
Sean: So we have time for one last question. I want to swing back to transparency a little bit. A lot of the focus seems to be on really large instances of transparency, like the Midcourse Corrections Report, which took a lot of time and money and should hopefully have a very large impact.
A lot of the new social media tools, which is referred to as Web 2.0, make it extremely inexpensive for people to update the world on every little action that they do. Have you seen anything in philanthropy, maybe anything that you’re doing or ways that people in philanthropy think about having transparency around smaller issues not around giant programs but around the every day things that they do, without getting bogged down in just revealing meaningless stuff that they do on a daily basis?
Jim: Well you know it is interesting; one of the other panelists at the Council of Foundation Session was Joel Fleishman. Of course who recently wrote a book called “The Foundation” and the subtitle of the book is “A Great American Secret”, and in many respects I’ve been very pleased to see this movement toward transparency in the philanthropic community because I do think that there is a lack of wide spread understanding of what our institutions do, the role that they play and hopefully an understanding of the contributions that we make.
And, again, I want to stress in talking about contributions that foundations make, that these contributions are all made in partnership with those we are privileged to support. It’s not just us, it could never be just us and we are an in abler of a wonderful constellation of organizations that make up the non-profit sector.
So in that context, I do think that the movement toward transparency is an important one. I find that I’m learning every day from others in the field about ways that we can do this more effectively and perhaps even in smaller ways.
Now, your blog is an example of I think something that might be characterized as Web 2.0. We are seeing, obviously, it seems to me a proliferation of blogs on philanthropy on the non-profit sector. I have been pleased to see some of my colleagues in foundations take this on, on their own.
There is a woman whose name I don’t recall, but who runs a community foundation I believe somewhere in the Midwest whose started her own blog. I know that Albert Ruesga of the Meyers Foundation has his own blog.
I think that these are great tools to just shed light into the work of our organization like into the world of organizations that many people don’t know much about. I think that the more people understand the work of foundations the better that our field is and I hope that we at Irvine are making some very small steps toward contributing to that broader aspiration.
Sean: Well, Jim, thank you for the steps you have taken toward transparency already. Thank you for joining us today.
Jim: Sean, thanks again for having me.
Sean: This has been Tactical Philanthropy Podcast. You can visit us at tacticalphilanthropy.com. For more information about the James Canales and the James Irvine Foundation visit irvine.org. Thanks so much.