Archive for July, 2011

Micheal J Fox, Sharing and Having a common mission

July 13, 2011

Over at the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s Blog, Phil Buchanan writes about a discussion that occurred at CEP’s annual conference last month. Fox’s foundation focuses exclusively on finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease, which is somewhat unconventional because it does not fund any patient care initiatives (or the vast bulk of the funds go exclusively to research.) They are also unique in that they require each grantee to make an in-person report about their research each year. Despite some initial push back, the result of having to make this kind of presentation has been that more of the researchers in this area are sharing data and collaborating more. The foundation says that it might be one of the most important contributions it makes to the field.

Which got me thinking: why don’t more of the larger, more issue focused foundations put more of these kinds of requirements in place for their grantees? I’m not saying that every foundation should require each grantee to make an in person presentation about their results and progress each year in front of all the other grantees, but why isn’t there more of this kind of thing? I see lots of events and opportunities for organizations to make their pitch about what they want to do, but none focused on what they actually accomplished with given funds or within a giving time period.

The couple of issues I thought of were:

1) Most foundations aren’t as narrowly focused on a single issue as the Fox Foundation is on Parkinson’s research. This is important, because as an organization, I’m more likely to benefit from learning what my peers are doing and how they did it if we’re working in the same field than I am listening to a wide range of dispersed topics that probably don’t advance my cause. It might be interesting, but is it effective? That said, many of the larger regional (and some smaller) foundations do have a few specific focus areas with well defined objectives and a relatively well identified group of service providers. The Meadows Foundation or the King Foundation in Dallas, Houston Endowment or the Rockwell Fund in Houston are examples that come to mind (in Texas) that are focused, large enough to make multiple large grants to a variety of organizations, and have enough clout to require grantees to make presentations to each other.

2) Considering how many different organizations there are out there doing similar but not quite the same thing, it might be difficult (or boring) to have each of them come present. But that in itself would be useful because it would mean that more organizations couldn’t hide from the reality that there is a lot of service duplication, and partnerships might be more achievable than previously thought–especially if they could get a funder behind them to support and nurture the collaboration.

3) Some organizations just don’t have very good presentations but might to an excellent job at what they do. I can buy this, but only to a certain point. In his previous post, Buchanan talked about the need for passion and evaluation to go hand in hand–that nonprofit leaders must be able to separate emotion from results and use emotion to improve our results. That might be, but why would it be a bad thing to make an executive director, board chair or development professional have to prepare a presentation that could easily be adapted for use with donors?

4) Some nonprofits aren’t very good at evaluations. Exactly. I hear a lot of admonitions about how nonprofits need to get better about evaluating their results, etc. etc. But I don’t see much effort to make them do it publicly. There are two reasons I think this is a good idea: a) there is a fairly good reason to believe that organizations just don’t know how to measure their results, or don’t know how to do it effectively; and b) maybe a little social pressure isn’t such a bad thing if it helps organizations to do the hard work of rigorous evaluations. When I was in Boy Scouts, my troop participated in an annual scouting skills competition, where each patrol was required to demonstrate competency in a variety of “scouting skills” and awarded points for their various levels of mastery. Each troop’s patrol scores were added up and the troop with the highest score won the competition. Because my troop routinely won, I learned a couple of things. First, that we had an intense focus on making sure that the activities the troop did at meetings and campouts focused on makingĀ  sure we were building scouting and leadership skills that were required for advancement, and also would help us win the competition each year (there were two goals, and winning was always secondary.) Second, I learned that because we demonstrated a level of excellence, there were many other groups that openly acknowledged that they pushed themselves to emulate and surpass my troop in the competition each year. I saw the same thing at the patrol level in my troop: individual patrols would compete and raise their level of mastery each month to try and best the other patrols. It works. I don’t know if nonprofits need to compete for a “best results” award or presentation, but doing it in front of each other might spur some healthy competition and improvement across the board.

I can’t really speak about how this might work with the largest of the large foundations who are usually hyper focused on an issue (Gates, Broad, Lumina, etc.) who can bring together grantees from around the country to work together on solving a “big issue” like education reform at the national level or hunger relief at a global scale. To me, that’s besides the point. While I don’t resent the focus and money some of the larger national issues receive, I think that there is probably a lot to be said for developing a strong, healthy, well managed regional group of nonprofits and funders who are very good at delivering results for their constituents. Right now, I think that there is a lot to be learned from regions like New York/Boston, and Silicon Valley/LA/San Francisco regions: they consistently produce “leading,” attention-getting, innovative nonprofits that are forced to deliver results because of the strong leadership of already established organizations. One of the objectives, for me, for pushing local foundations to do this sort of thing would be to develop a strong regional presence that can produce the innovative, results driven organizations and programs we might need to keep pace with the problems we face.