philbuchananThe Data a Foundation Board Needs

By: Phil Buchanan In: 2010 Annual Conference

26 Apr 2010

What data does a foundation board member need to gauge foundation effectiveness? That was the question we grappled with at a trustee-CEO summit session Saturday at the Council on Foundations annual conference in Denver. Our session received invaluable help from the CEO and a trustee of a foundation that has pushed more than most: the Stuart Foundation in California.

Christy Pichel and Davis Campbell described how the Stuart Foundation has moved beyond the usual, easily available metrics to get a handle on effectiveness. For example, the foundation surveys its grantees regularly and looks at how it performs relative to other funders. The foundation learned that grantees valued deeply its program officers’ expertise—and wanted more of their time and help. The result was board approval of the hiring of additional staff.

In the area of child welfare, Stuart is seeking better life outcomes for foster youth in California but recognized that the state lacked an adequate data system. So the foundation made an investment that has led to the creation of a database that allows the foundation—as well as grantees and government officials—to track the efficacy of efforts to help foster youth establish lifelong connections with caring adults. Stuart Foundation can now monitor whether its child welfare strategy is working. (For more on this, see CEP’s case study on Stuart.)

Performance assessment for foundations is challenging (much more so than for businesses or operating nonprofits). And, as Christy and Davis noted, you can’t understand your effectiveness if you don’t have an articulated strategy. It’s tough work—as another California foundation CEO, Jim Canales of the James Irvine Foundation, has discussed on the CEP Blog in recent days.

But I wonder: Is there a more central board responsibility than assessing a foundation’s effectiveness? I am not sure there is. Let’s hope more and more foundation boards and CEOs follow the lead of funders like Irvine, Stuart, Wallace, RWJF, and others and vigorously push for the data that will enable them to answer that deceptively simple question: “How are we doing?”

Disclosure: CEP provides assessment tools and/or receives grant support from the foundations mentioned in this post.

Phil Buchanan is the president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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