Funders Not Investing Enough in Learning, Sharing What Works

Funders Not Investing Enough in Learning, Sharing What Works

While 65 percent of foundation CEOs say they understand what is working well in their programmatic efforts, 42 percent say their foundation is not investing enough time and money in further developing that understanding, a report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy finds. 

Based on survey responses from a hundred and nineteen CEOs of private and community foundations that give at least $5 million annually, the report, Understanding & Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice (26 pages, PDF), found that 15 percent of respondents said they understood "extremely well" what was working in their programs, while 50 percent said they understood "very well" what was working and 34 percent said they understood "moderately well." As for what is not working, 10 percent of respondents said they understood "extremely well," 33 percent said they understood "very well," and 51 percent said they understood "moderately well." The top challenges cited by respondents in terms of learning what is and isn't working were a lack of capacity and difficulties in assessing impact, with half of CEOs citing each as a challenge. The survey also found that the most common assessment methods were not necessarily the most useful, with most respondents relying on site visits and/or on-site assessments (98 percent) as well as final grant reports (98 percent) to learn what is and isn't working, but only 56 percent and 31 percent saying they found those methods to be one of the most useful sources of information. 

According to the report, 80 percent of CEOs said their foundation uses the knowledge it generates about what is and isn't working to inform decisions related to the continuation, reorientation, or termination of their foundation's grants, programs, initiatives, or strategies; 75 percent said evidence of what is and isn't working at other foundations with similar goals also informs their foundations' programmatic strategies; and only 19 percent said they had quite a bit of knowledge about what is working at other foundations, while just 6 percent said the same about what isn't working.  

In addition, while 76 percent of CEOs said their foundations publicly share at least some of its knowledge about what is working and 58 percent share some knowledge about what isn't working, they noted that foundations are not sharing more due to a lack of capacity, hesitance about exposing their failures, and the difficulty of determining what information is useful to share. 

The report includes discussion questions for foundation staff and boards as well as profiles (30 pages, PDF) of four grantmakers highlighting their efforts to understand and share their work.

"Assessing performance is crucial to learning and improvement for foundations but seeing as there's no one outcome or measure to determine success, it is notoriously challenging," said Ellie Buteau, CEP's vice president of research and co-author of the report. "Foundations recognize the importance of this work, and many are building their understanding of what works and sharing that knowledge, but there seem to be missed opportunities, and more can be done."

"New CEP Research Digs Into How Foundations Understand and Share What Works." Center for Effective Philanthropy Press Release 11/08/2018. "Understanding & Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice." Center for Effective Philanthropy Report 11/08/2018.