When foundations are uncharitable

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When it comes to sharing what they know, foundations are, alas, uncharitable.

That is the most striking finding of a report on foundations and transparency published last week by the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

The 52-page report, called Sharing What Matters: Foundation Transparency, is based on surveys with 145 foundation CEOs and more than 15,000 grantees, as well as reviews of more than 70 foundation websites. It’s thorough.

Foundations do a good job of sharing their goals, strategies and grant-making processes, the CEP researchers found. That’s all well and good. But..

..when it comes to being transparent about how they assess their own performance and share lessons learned from what has worked and what has not, foundations are less transparent, despite believing that it’d be beneficial to do so — and both funders and grantees are missing opportunities to learn and improve.

This is dismaying.

A few findings: Fewer than one-third of foundation websites describe how the foundation assesses its work. Fewer than one-fourth of websites share “information about strategies that have or have not worked for the foundation.” Just five percent “share information about projects that did not reach intended goals.”And only four percent include “a comprehensive assessment of overall foundation performance.”

To those of you who are immersed in the world of foundations and nonprofits, where foundations hold sway and answer, in the end, to no one but themselves, these findings may be ho-hum. But as a newcomer to the sector, I’m troubled by the way that most foundations — not all, but most — seem to go about their business with little or no accountability.

After all, foundations exist to make the world a better place, by alleviating suffering or promoting well-being. They ought to deploy all of their resources–their grants, their investment assets and their knowledge–to those ends. But they don’t.

All foundations make grants, with varying degrees of impact. This isn’t discretionary. Most are required by law to distribute 5 percent of their assets annually for charitable purposes.

As for their assets, they could invest their money in ways that are designed to generate social and environmental benefit and minimize harm. Most don’t. Instead they focus purely or principally on maximizing returns, whatever the consequences. That’s a missed opportunity.

Finally, they can share their knowledge and insights, but the Center for Effective Philanthropy report indicates that they are falling short in that regard as well. That, too, is a missed opportunity.

As Ellie Buteau, vice president of research at the CEP and an author of the report, told me by phone: “Foundations are in a unique position to develop knowledge and information about how to address very difficult social problems. They can help the nonprofit sector and government understand what is and what isn’t working very well.”

Consider, as a hypothetical example, the goal of helping students from low-income families to finish high school or attend college. Dozens of foundations, big and small, work toward that end, including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (“We aim to ensure that all US students graduate from high school prepared to do college level work”), the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation with its Young Scholars Program, the Annie E. Casey Foundation with its Learn and Earn to Achieve Potential Initiative, The Walton Family Foundation with its backing for charter schools and The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation with its support for afterschool programs. So what works? The after school programs? Parental involvement? Smaller classes? Smaller schools? Better-trained teachers? Financial inducements? School choice?

To be sure, some of these foundations try to share what they learn. Imagine, though, if they all embraced rigorous evaluations and talked openly about their successes and failures, so that more dollars could flow to the programs and nonprofits that do the most good at the least cost.

Given the limited resources in the nonprofit sector, the relative scarcity of information about impact is scandalous.

Why, then, are foundations are loathe to share what they know? Surely they mean well. The CEP researchers can only speculate, but they raise three possibilities.

First, foundations can’t share what they don’t know. Some may be blissfully ignorant about whether their grants are actually doing any good. Oops!

Second, and this seems the most likely explanation to me, is the challenge of measuring impact. The CEP researchers write:

Assessment is exceedingly difficult, and foundations may not be devoting the necessary resources to understand success, failure, and lessons learned. Even among large foundations, many have no evaluation function or allocate limited resources to judging performance.

Finally, foundation executives may have the information but decline to share it because they’re afraid of admitting failure or damaging their reputations or careers. Let’s hope that’s not the case.

Transparency is achievable, the CEP report shows, through case studies of a couple of foundations that excel in that regard–the Baptist Healing Trust of Nashville, TN, and the Central New York Community Foundation in Syracuse, NY. (Although even the Baptist Healing Trust doesn’t share much about programs that fall short of expectations.) The CEP study also includes an interview with the leader of a foundation that is so secretive that it refused to be named. It has no website and staff members do not disclose their employer when they attend meetings.

The CEP study was supported by the Fund for Shared Insight, a collaboration among eight foundations that, to their credit, want to promote openness and learning in the sector. Fay Twersky, co-chair of the fund and director of the effective philanthropy group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, says foundations, which enjoy tax-exempt status, have an obligation to the public to explain what they do.

She told The Chronicle of Philanthropy: “We have the privilege of being able to give away charitable dollars that benefit the common good. There’s a moral imperative to be more open than the minimum legal requirement.”

If only more foundation executives felt that way.

Originally published at nonprofitchronicles.com on February 28, 2016.

Reporting on philanthropy, psychedelics, animal welfare, global poverty, etc. Ex-Fortune. Baseball fan. Runner. Seen in Gen, Marker, Elemental, OneZero.

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