For Performance Assessments, How Public Should Foundations Be?

(Kevin Bolduc is the Vice President of Assessment Tools at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP). In this role, he oversees both the design of new tools and the refinement of CEP's suite of assessment offerings, and has presented CEP's data to the boards, management, and staff of dozens of funders.)

Kevin Bolduc

We at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) are often asked, just how public should foundations be with the results of the assessments tools we provide them?  It's a simple question, but I am not sure there's an easy answer.

The question arises most frequently in the context of our Grantee Perception Report (GPR), which we have provided to some 200 foundations of various types and sizes. CEP's motivation for creating the GPR was simple: in order to be truly effective, foundations need to hear from those they are supporting. Relative to other one-off grantee surveys, the GPR is powerful because grantees can be candid, knowing their identity will be protected, and because the results are comparative.  Through the GPR, funders learn about how they are doing relative to others, helping highlight real strengths and weaknesses.

Since we began delivering these reports eight years ago, about 40 funders of all stripes and sizes, from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation (the first to do so and unusual enough that it was written about in the New York Times) to The John R. Oishei Foundation (one of the most recent), have elected to post some or all of their CEP Grantee Perception Reports on their websites. (You can also find links to public GPRs listed on Glasspockets.) But many funders have chosen not to post their GPRs. Here and there I've been asked why not all funders make their GPRs public and whether I think they should.

There are a few intertwined reasons I see (and hear) about why funders posting their GPRs can be good for philanthropy and can even help to mitigate some of the sector's inherently asymmetric power dynamics.

  • Clarity: Public GPRs can provide one more resource for grantees and other prospective partners to understand how a particular foundation does its work—strengthening potential future proposals or helping to identify areas of mutual alignment.
  • Transparency about successes and failures: Funders can lead the way in demonstrating that by sharing successes and failures openly, we can best learn and improve.
  • Accountability: Self-imposed accountability can often serve as a first step in a funder making change. While posting the GPR alone might not do this, funders often use the opportunity to tell grantees (and others) what they're going to change and why. They can prime grantees to start reconsidering any preconceived notions and approach the foundation with a fresh perspective. And in so doing, they might begin to alter the dynamics of the relationship for the better, fostering a greater sense of comfort among grantees in providing feedback, including about whether change is happening—or not.
  • Motivation of internal change effort: When leadership makes the GPR itself public, it's a powerful statement to staff colleagues about the importance of the GPR feedback and, more importantly, about the importance of always seeking to learn and improve the way the foundation works with its grantees.

These are strong arguments. But here's the thing: I've seen funders that don't make their GPRs public go on to make real and important changes in their work based on GPR results. And I've seen a few funders go ahead, make results public, and then follow-up with half-hearted change efforts.

Posting results is easy. Creating change based on those results is the hard work.

Furthermore, we know that many foundations communicate about their results in some way, even if they don't go as far as publicly sharing their GPR. Some send a detailed letter or e-mail to grantees. Some have hosted a gathering or discussion with grantees and potential applicants. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, for example, didn't post its GPR, but it held open conference calls in which foundation leaders candidly described GPR results and invited questions; the Foundation then posted audio recordings of the calls on its web site.

So, here's a thought: maybe Glasspockets should accept and link to all these types of sharing as "evidence" of transparency and accountability. It's not just the public GPRs that are real signals of commitment to effectiveness.

CEP's third-party evaluations indicate that funders are making major changes in their work, whether they're posting results or not.

And that's what it's all about for me.

— Kevin Bolduc