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October 28, 2006

Musings from John #2...

Every week or so John Esterle, TWI’s director, shares his thoughts, insights, fears, hopes and wishes about the current state of philanthropy, as well as acknowledgments for great work he encounters along the way. Here is the latest:


This past week I attended the Northern California Grantmakers presentation on “Defining Risks in Grantmaking” led by Susan Clark of Columbia Foundation and Ellen Friedman of Tides Foundation and moderated by Hugh Burroughs (bio here). The presentation was excellent. Their thoughtful comments provided the foundation for a rich discussion that explored risk from a variety of angles.

Two ideas especially stuck with me. Susan talked about the importance of stepping up to problems we don’t know the solutions to, and of funding programs that explore unknown or uncertain territory. Then Ellen linked risk-taking to the importance of developing authentic relationships between funders and grantees.

To me those two ideas are linked.

We are much more likely to be willing to step into the unknown, to embrace uncertainty and risk, with people we have real relationships with. What do I mean by real? To begin it means being able to give each other honest and direct feedback about the work – and that doesn’t happen without trust. Trust, then, is a huge issue for funders and grantees if risk-taking is to be attempted and supported.

And that got me thinking about the importance of funders providing operating support, or unrestricted funding. Such funding is implicitly rooted in trust. It also allows grantees the freedom to take risks themselves. When we talk about risk-taking in philanthropy, about innovation, what we’re really talking about it is supporting that at the program level.

It’s promising to see all the conversations bubbling up in the world of philanthropy about doing things differently, about taking risks, about funding learning and innovation, about supporting leadership development, above all about the importance of authentic relationships. From my perspective, giving operating support provides the platform for all of those things to happen.

Thinking about risk and uncertainty also got me thinking about the interview I did with Eamonn Kelly and his wise words on the subject.

The Kelly interview is here.


October 19, 2006

First Posting from John

While the need to better evaluate programs has been trumpeted loudly for some time now, increasingly there appears to be some push back on the drive (stampede?) to measure results. One promising indicator is Drowning in Data, by Alana Snibbe, in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review. Snibbe provides a useful overview of a complex issue and offers good insights into what funders and grantees should really be paying attention to in terms of assessing what they’re doing.

Snibbe’s raises one point I’ve been thinking more and more about -- namely, the need for foundations to evaluate themselves. In short, evaluation should be a two-way conversation in which grantees and funders explore together what they’re learning and how they might improve. Or as Snibe puts it, the trick is using evaluation to “create cultures of inquiry” in both foundations and nonprofits. And the trick to doing that is building relationships where people are able to authentically share what’s working – and what’s not. We’ve been doing that informally at TWI, but I’ve been wondering how to be more intentional about documenting and sharing what’s being learned. I guess that’s one reason for this blog!

Anyway, Snibbe’s recommendations put me in mind of another article I’d read recently by Harrell and Culbertson, Size Matters, on the Philanthropy Roundtable site.
They find that “most foundations do not ask grantees for feedback about key areas of their operations that influence their relationships.” In particular, they fault large foundations (assets over $100 million) for this lack. They close by saying “The question that large foundations should be asking is: How can we retain the advantages of size (for instance in fund management, capacity building, durability, or research) while cultivating the strengths of a smaller organization (such as flexibility, close relationships, and expeditious decisions)? Why not ask your grantees?”

Why not ask your grantees? It’s a great question and one that can’t be asked often enough in the philanthropic world about all sorts of things.