As I begin to reflect on this year’s conference theme, “Windows,” a metaphor for encouraging a spirit of transparency, honesty, openness and candor, I am moved to also reflect a bit about the past year.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of theories of change in our work. As we in foundations put increased emphasis on developing sophisticated theories of change and the hoped-for metrics they will make possible, I find myself asking: Who should really be determining these theories and what advances the common good? Who should own the theory of change?
As I watch our grant partners—smaller community-based organizations in low-income communities—trying to navigate this rapidly changing landscape in philanthropy, I observe them attempting to fit what they are doing into the theories of change of their funders. This often occurs at the expense of meeting the needs of their communities. In spite of frequent recommendations that giving general support grants most successfully builds the strengths and impact of nonprofits, they are receiving more and more restricted grants. I have had grant partners say to me that they are feeling increasingly like subcontractors who are fulfilling the needs of their funders.
In these situations, what happens to fulfilling the needs of communities? I think the current climate of increased emphasis on metrics is in fact weakening many nonprofits. After all, what are we actually seeking to measure? Social and systemic change work is very dependent upon strategic relationships. Yet, we rarely ask grant partners, or ourselves, to measure the quality and quantity of these relationships.
The result is that as grants become more restrictive, organizations have fewer resources to build their own infrastructure. They begin to focus their staff resources on meeting the “contract” requirements from their funder(s). When those grants end (as they inevitably will) those organizations often lose staff.
I don’t pretend to have the answers. This business of change, of moving the needle toward a more just world, is very complicated work. I do, however, believe that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of delivering on foundations’ needs to fulfill their own metrics at the expense of metrics that are more central in the communities they wish to impact.
Over the next few days, as we talk about our work and the impact we seek to make, I invite you to join me in this conversation about change.
Judy Patrick is CEO and president of the Women’s Foundation of California