Larry McGill joined the Foundation Center as senior vice president for research on January 1, 2007. In that position, he oversees the center's research program and new research initiative, which calls for a wide range of efforts aimed at shedding light on grantmaker trends and practices, as well as on emerging issues in the field. Prior to joining the center he served as director of research and planning for the Cultural Policy and the Arts National Data Archive (CPANDA) at Princeton University and as deputy director of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, where he focused on encouraging new research in the field of cultural policy studies.
Philanthropy News Digest: How much of your work at CPANDA was devoted to calculating the economic impact of the arts in the United States?
Larry McGill: Actually, not much. Economic impact is one of the problem areas in cultural policy studies — it's hard to quantify and quite controversial. In fact, a lot of people think the economic impact of the arts can't, and shouldn't, be measured. The main objection people have is that by focusing on economic impact, you're missing the larger point, which is that the arts are a good in and of themselves. How do you measure the joy someone gets out of attending a concert? How do you measure the value of bringing people of different backgrounds together at a dance or theater performance? How do you measure what it means to a young person to be able to stand nose-to-nose with a Cezanne or Picasso? It's extremely difficult. Of course, those are the numbers policy analysts want, and those are the numbers arts and cultural institutions feel they need to have in order to engage in meaningful policy discussions. So they get produced, but a lot of people think they're beside the point.
PND: In your new position here at the center you're learning a lot about the inner workings of foundations. What has most surprised you about foundations and the foundation field?
LM: The complexity of the field is probably the most surprising thing to me. Believe it or not, foundations and philanthropy in general are a bit of a black box to most people. Once you open the lid and look at what really goes on, however, you quickly discover that the types of foundations and vehicles available for doing philanthropic work are far more extensive, complicated, and interesting than you might have guessed.
PND: What role can research play in advancing the field of institutional philanthropy?
LM: I like to say that research can be a connector, a corrector, and a bellwether. For example, research that looks at how philanthropy in general works can serve as a way for foundations to learn more about how other foundations and nonprofit organizations operate in the ecosystem they all share. That's how research serves a connecting function, by providing a context in which foundations can make decisions relative to what others are doing.
Research can also serve as a corrector. Ideas and impressions and opinions about what is happening in a particular environment or with respect to a particular situation are always floating around, and it's hard to know what the prevailing realities are unless you do some research. By doing research, you get to check your perceptions against reality, which in turn creates an opportunity to course correct should those perceptions turn out to be flawed.
Finally, and perhaps most usefully, research can be a bellwether. There are issues emerging now that will be of utmost concern to the field in three, four, five years, and we can get a better handle on them if we start looking and gathering data and preparing to deal with them now, rather than waiting for them to become crises.
PND: Issues such as?
LM: There's a lot of talk in the field about things like transparency, accountability, and measuring impact, all of which are important and on our radar screen. But since I've only been with the center a few months, I want to listen to what our partners and others have to say about these and other issues as we put together our research agenda. That said, there are three issues that have emerged recently that are important for us and the field to come to grips with: diversity, grantmaking standards, and the issue of effectiveness.
On the diversity front, the center is part of a collaborative effort initiated last year called the "Diversity in Philanthropy Project." The purpose of the project, which has received funding from the California Endowment, the Irvine Foundation, and the San Francisco Foundation, is to assess how far organized philanthropy has come in diversifying their staffs and boards, as well as in reaching diverse populations in their grantmaking. Together with our partners, we are looking at data we already have that can shed light on those questions, while also trying to identify the kinds of data we might need to fill in gaps where we don't have enough information.
In the area of standards, we are working with the Grants Managers Network and six other partners on a project to look at how grantmakers and grantseekers can work more effectively with each other throughout the grantmaking process. A particular focus of the project concerns the myriad application and reporting protocols with which grantseekers must cope in working with various funders. There have been some efforts in recent years to try to standardize application and reporting processes across foundations. Among other things, our project will look at what lessons can be learned from such initiatives, with an eye toward developing standards to guide the grantmaking process, from the application through grant reporting.
We are also deepening our work in the area of knowledge management to help foundations better understand how knowledge management practices lead to greater effectiveness and real-world impact. Part of what we are trying to do is demystify the concept of knowledge management, which has an eye-glazing, academic ring to it. In fact, it can be boiled down into a series of very practical steps that foundations can take to improve their organizational effectiveness, the effectiveness of philanthropy as a whole, and the ability of grantmakers to make an impact on issues.
PND: What's the biggest challenge for you and the Research Department as you move to tackle some of these questions and issues?
LM: Well, a big component of our new initiative involves capacity building. We're expanding our capacity to analyze data and get results out to the philanthropic community in a more timely fashion. And we have the capacity now to do more in the way of primary research, tackling issues confronting the entire field of philanthropy and bringing an expanded set of research strategies to those issues. The challenge we have set for ourselves is to listen carefully to the concerns of the field and design research that is responsive, timely, and relevant to the issues facing philanthropy in the twenty-first century.
— Mitch Nauffts