Community Foundations Press For Accountability
Jim Canales, who is president of the James Irvine Foundation, has offered to lend his ear to the blogosphere for ideas about what foundations can do to increase accountability. (Kudos to Tactical Philanthropy for inviting him into this dialogue.) It’s a topic that PhilanthroMedia focuses upon extensively and one that I have delved deeply into both as the head of a major philanthropic initiative at the Chicago Community Trust and in the employ of Community Foundation of America (CFA.)
Over the past six years, I’ve worked with Community Foundations of America and leading community foundations on two major ideas for advancing accountability. Both were driven by the desire to make impact data available to donors (a motivation that private foundations don’t share, and which makes this hard work even harder.) Here is a very brief summary of each:
Impact Data -- About six years ago, CFA began an effort to capture performance data about grants that could be made available to the high-net worth donors they serve. We created a truncated version of the United Way’s Logic Model. It was built on the idea that inputs are a good starting point, and that you can’t have accountability if you don’t count. We taught this process to program officers and grantees at ten community foundations around the country with varying degrees of success. We also identified two sets of metrics (beginner and advanced, if you will) that community foundations which want to demonstrate their accountability should consider gathering and making available on their grantees. About three years ago, data elements driving this process were refined by a group of community foundation leaders. Reference white papers describing this process and resulting metrics here.
This work also led to the current effort, undertaken by the Urban Institute and the Center for What Works, to develop a taxonomy of performance metrics that can be a resource to nonprofits.
Impact Database - In tandem with the data effort, we worked with a now-defunct technology company, called B2P Commerce Corporation, to build a web-based system for both capturing and making this data available. I worked with 12 community foundations who implemented the system, called ImpactMgr, to varying degrees of success. The Kansas City Community Foundation was part of the beta phase for ImpactMgr but then spun off to create DonorEdge.
I won’t go into the post-mortem now about why ImpactMgr didn’t fly but will attribute much of it to first mover disadvantage. We were at least five years too early. The technology was Web 1.0, meaning too unwieldy and too expensive. The process was also unwieldy for both nonprofits and foundations. And because this data was a ‘nice to have’ for donors, neither foundation program staff nor grantees could afford to put the requisite time into building these metrics. I do believe the imperative for accountability continues to grow and that efforts like this will increasingly gain traction. I also fervently believe that those starting down this path should, as Casey's Ralph Smith says, "make new mistakes" by making sure they understand what community foundations as well as United Ways did right and wrong.
Later this week, I’ll summarize some of the ideas for foundation accountability that have come up on PhilanthroMedia over the past year.