Category Archives: Council on Foundations

3 Lessons on Evaluation in Foundations

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Mayur Patel, Vice President of Strategy and Assessment at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

by Mayur Patel

On Sunday afternoon at the conference, I had the chance to participate in a panel discussion on the intersection between strategy and evaluation. The conversations that followed with participants from private foundations, corporate philanthropy and local community foundations was fascinating. Here are three key themes that emerged:

  • Where you sit matters: Over the past few years, new foundation titles have increasingly emerged to describe the position of individuals involved in evaluation. We now have strategic assessment officers, performance managers, knowledge management officers, and even learning and listening directors! The list goes on. Aside from being an amusing word game, the trend speaks to a larger recognition in the field that how you label and house the roles and responsibilities of evaluation affects its use. Many participants shared the organizational efforts they’ve made to link their evaluation teams directly to program development, strategy and planning.
  • Creating Demand for Learning and Evaluation: Integrating an evaluation function into a foundation, invariably results in more work for program officers and staff, regardless of how you structure it. The challenge then is how to create demand for this function and how to demonstrate that it helps make a foundation’s work smarter and more effective. Participants shared their practical advice on approaches they’ve used to highlight the value of evaluation, including dedicating evaluation resources to support grantee capacity, leveraging assessment findings to enhance a program’s leadership through external publications and providing support for landscape studies that provide program teams with the broader context to inform their work.
  • Indicators versus Conversations: Evaluation discussions can often become singularly focused on metrics. However, unlocking the intersection between strategy and evaluation is much less about indicators and data, than it is about using insights to support conversations and decision making. Participants shared the view that if one of the primary reasons we engage in evaluation is to support course corrections and adaptation, then greater focus is needed on how we use evaluation to help facilitate conversations about learning and program improvement.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

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Leadership Under Duress

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Richard Woo, CEO of The Russell Family Foundation

 by Richard Woo

My board chair and I attended a very provocative seminar for CEOs & Trustees the weekend prior to the COF conference. The session entitled—Leadership in a (Permanent) Crisis—was facilitated by Marty Linsky, a faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School and co-author of the book, Leadership on the Line. Here are some memorable nuggets that captured my attention during the workshop and highly-interactive exercises between CEOs and trustees. Both my board chair and I are feeling our frames of reference shifting.

  • You have to stand in your purpose. If you’re not, you’re certainly standing in someone else’s purpose.
  • The only way you know you are exercising leadership is when you are meeting resistance. In organizational life, when you meet resistance you are on the right track. It’s a sign of addressing really important work. Often we think that resistance is a sign of being on the wrong track—and we back off for the sake of keeping the peace.
  • Leadership is the art of disappointing your people at a rate they can absorb. When you are pushing against what people expect, they can only absorb so much. If it’s a win-win situation, then it’s a sign that nothing important is at stake. Leadership is about the distribution of losses.
  • The push back and resistance comes not because people don’t get it. It’s because they do get it and they don’t like it. Before you push people out of their comfort zone, make sure you have built up enough social capital that makes it more difficult for your board to fire you than to listen to you.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.


Reflections from a Millennial

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Chanelle Gandy, Program Associate at The Funders’ Network.

 by Chanelle Gandy

As a newcomer to philanthropy and Council On Foundations (COF), I departed the COF annual conference in Philadelphia with a renewed sense of purpose and urgency for my work.  But what’s more, I sincerely enjoyed myself while interacting with some of the best and brightest practitioners our field has to offer.

When I was employed in a different sector, I attended my share of conferences that weren’t so Millennial-friendly, as evidenced by low attendance by the “under 30” professionals, a clear lack of programming and networking receptions designed for emerging leaders, and a “wait your turn” mentality.

I actually began to think that this was the norm and continued to attend conferences every subsequent year thinking that someone eventually would pay attention to my evaluation feedback, which was essentially a plea for more programming tailored to the needs of new practitioners in our sector.

The COF conference was a different experience. Aside from the conference program, I had very little information from which to form my expectations for the COF conference.  There’s no doubt that I looked forward to making new connections, expanding my learning, and matching names with faces, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this conference made a genuine effort to be Millennial-friendly.

The Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities has been intentional in its inclusiveness efforts, including designing ways to further the development of new professionals both internally and programmatically. My experience at COF shows me that philanthropy as a field also understands the importance of preparing the next generation for leadership.

During a pre-conference session, I was greeted by two Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) members who quickly brought me up to speed on the events they’d be sponsoring in conjunction with the conference.  I was sold after I heard “young people.”

What I learned the following evening was that EPIP is the best kept secret in our field for aspiring practitioners and senior and executive foundation staff who are committed to cultivating the next generation of foundation leadership. Since beginning my career in philanthropy, it has been quite refreshing to interact with senior program staff who embrace the mentorship role, and most importantly, challenge my thinking about the issues we care about.

If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.



The Experiences of An Emerging Leader at National Philanthropy Conferences

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Maisha Simmons, Program Associate at The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

by Maisha Simmons

While attending my first Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) national conference in Philadelphia, I did not know what to expect. I figured it would be a group of eager, early career professionals trying to understand this world of philanthropy — how to find our path and make our mark. I found it to be all of that and more. I easily wove through sessions examining how to understand philanthropy, manage power dynamics, and think about creating social impact. Each session was more and more intriguing as I contemplated my own journey in philanthropy and how I would like to make my mark in this world.

But the session that I enjoyed the most was on the last morning of the conference where young professionals had the opportunity to sit at the feet of new and seasoned CEOs:  “Across Generations: A Multigenerational Dialogue on Philanthropy”. As a new professional in philanthropy I was refreshed by hearing each person’s journey in philanthropy and how they have been able to navigate obstacles and opportunities. I found myself amazed by how they were able to bring their passion for social justice and use that passion to influence the field to combat some of the systemic injustices that are facing vulnerable communities.

I transitioned to the Council on Foundation’s Annual Conference with the excitement of EPIP fresh in my mind. Each day I spent in Philly enjoying the spirit of brotherhood, I appreciated the theme of this year’s conference “Windows”. From the opening plenary session which challenged our field to evaluate how we talk about our work, how we support non-profits, and how we have positioned ourselves as a sector, to the closing plenary that charged us to continue to intentionally grow in diversity of both thought and experiences, this conference was affirming.

This year’s Council on Foundation’s conference is the second one I have ever attended I am always amazed at how many people converge in one place to hear what’s trending in the field, take advantage of the opportunity to connect with Foundations that are working in your issue area, and also share some of the struggles that folks are facing. I found the spirit of the meeting collegial even thought there are the awkward times of searching for just the right table during the plenary sessions!

Since I work for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (a national organization) my perspective of the field is colored by a lens of thinking about big picture strategies for macro issues. However, in this conference I was challenged to think more about the local funder as my partner to working in communities who are also taking on some extremely systemic issues that are affecting their respective communities. In the “Listening to Voices from the Field II workshop”, I was inspired to hear how when a Foundation uses a place-based strategy they really dig in to join local boards, participate in community learning sessions and how they let that community hold the Foundation accountable to being responsive to both the true needs and the evolution to solution in those communities. Additionally, I came away with ways that as a national funder we can complement the work of place-based initiatives.

As I grow as a grantmaker I am always thinking about strategy, strategy and more strategy. The sessions “Philanthropic Strategy: Too Much of a Good Thing?” and “The Intersection of Strategy and Evaluation: Creating New Possibilities for Social Impact”, were a tag team of sessions that allowed me to realize the balance of strategy and evaluation. But what became even more evident, as I stepped out of the ivory tower, is that at the end of the day we are charged to improve the lives of people who often do not have resources in their communities because of the systemic barriers that exist within those communities. BUT they do have the tenacity and the courage to not only face those obstacles, but they have the passion and determination to change them. As gatekeepers of the resources it is our responsibility to listen, to seek input, and to allow ourselves to be challenged about our academic theories of change. When evaluating we should not just check a box when something has been “accomplished”, but understand how the evolution of change will often require evolution of strategy, and allow our frame for evaluation to change with the strategy.

As I took the train home to New Jersey on the last day of my six-day journey, I had plenty of time to reflect on the two events. I left EPIP ready for the revolution in philanthropy to unashamedly bring my energy and perspective to my organization in new, fresh, and exciting ways. To always remember that in the field of philanthropy we carry power dynamics into a situation and we should as young professionals acknowledge and respect that power.  COF reminded me of a family reunion where the elders shared their knowledge with the field or family in a way that took into account diversity of perspective and experiences. I found my time spent in the City of Brotherly Love was time well spent…I had great food, met good people, and left proud about my passion for social justice to improve the lives of people in vulnerable communities!

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.


Law and Dis-Order

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Richard Woo, CEO of  The Russell Family Foundation

by Richard Woo

The COF conference’s closing plenary on April 12th was provocatively titled: “Philanthropy on Trial: Innocent or Guilty.”  This session was sponsored by Microsoft Community Affairs and introduced by Seattle’s own Akhtar Badshah of Microsoft.  Before an audience of a thousand conference attendees a.k.a. “jurors,” the entire field of philanthropy was put on trial, charged with not fulfilling its mission of advancing the common good.  Ralph R. Smith, executive vice president of The Annie E. Casey Foundation and former chair of the COF board, served as the defense attorney. Gara LaMarche, president & CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies represented the prosecution in a mock trial that sought to answer questions such as: Is philanthropy advancing the common good or is it a poor apology for a financial system of great disparities? Are people in the philanthropy world living up to their mission? Is philanthropy really making a difference? A former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice, the Honorable Jane Cutler Greenspan acted as the judge. It was a scene straight out of an episode of “Law and Order” or “Judge Judy”!

I thought it was the most crisply expressed debate on philanthropy’s expectations, accomplishments and disappointments I’ve ever seen on the stage of a COF conference. The prosecution and defense arguments were ironically funny, insightful and impassioned. After the presentation of arguments, a jury of randomly-selected peers from the audience deliberated.  The result: a hung jury as to philanthropy’s innocence or guilt.  What’s your verdict?  Or is the jury still out?

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

Bringing A Narrative Eye to Philanthropy – Part 3

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Jorge Cino, Social Media Fellow, at the Levi Strauss Foundation.

by Jorge Cino

Note: You can access the first part of this post here, and the second part here.

Throughout the recent annual conferences of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) and the Council on Foundations (COF), I noticed that grant makers are placing striking emphasis on how to communicate our stories in new and better ways. While many leaders are still (understandably) looking for ways to measure the impact of their organization’s social media efforts (Beth Kanter discussed this in a recent Philanthropy411 post), content quality remains a non-negotiable pillar of communication.

In the social media landscape, blogging presents both an opportunity and a challenge: the opportunity to tee up your organization’s work with more depth and color than the 140-character- Tweet allows, and the challenge to unlearn some of our instinctive approaches to communication.

Abandonment can be difficult. Especially when it comes to the long paragraphs, jargony language, dense sentence structures and dry prose that often characterize philanthropic communication.

At the Levi Strauss Foundation, we believe storytelling is a crux part of our efforts to convey the work of our grantees in original and better ways. As a creative writer, I offer these five tips from the storytelling world as lynchpins to successful blogging about philanthropy—communication that keeps in touch with our times and preserves the integrity of our rich and multifaceted work:

1. Lead with the human element of a story. Make the reader care about your cause by drawing their attention to the people at the core of the issue. Also, you only get one beginning—give the reader an appealing hook to “enter” the story. When we profiled Lateefah Simon, the executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in the Bay Area, we opened the story with a personal quote about how historic advances in social justice intersected with her life. This grounded the piece at a personal level—and  answered the “so what?” of the story right away.
2. Don’t miss “teachable moments”—but keep them accessible. As a general rule, avoid subjecting the reader to technical terms unless you can explain them in vivid, concrete ways. The beauty of the blog medium is that specialists and casual readers alike may access content at any given time. There are always new opportunities to bring awareness to an issue your foundation cares about, and to the role your foundation plays in addressing it.
3. Stimulate the reader’s senses. Keep the prose crisp, shorten paragraphs to a couple of sentences each, and appeal to the reader’s sensory palette. (When in doubt, split the sentence in two!) Condense denser passages into digestible “nuggets” of information. Whenever possible, accompany your pieces with vivid imagery or video: in the digital age, appealing to the senses helps sustain the reader’s attention and provides multiple entry points to your story.
4. Keep in mind the intended audience for each post. Underlying the previous points is the imperative that your message should adapt to your audience. Although I earlier used the word “lynchpin,” I would choose a different word if I were addressing a field that doesn’t use it often.
On the flipside, remember that your intended reader is likely reading your story online. Whether you’re a baby boomer, a Gen-X or a Millenial, your online content exists in the social marketplace—many other blogs, videos and podcasts compete for your reader’s attention. Keep this in mind as you consider what kind of information you want to include in a single post.
5. Anchor the story to the organization’s history, hallmarks and values. A crisp, well-placed sentence about your foundation’s role in tackling a given issue can go a long way toward building reputational awareness. For example, this is how our guest blogger explained her role in eradicating discrimination against Filipino migrants living with HIV/AIDS.

With these tips, I conclude this series of posts about my experiences bringing a narrative eye to the Levi Strauss Foundation’s communication efforts. I hope these posts provide useful insights and practical tips about the art of blogging. I also hope they inspire other leaders and emerging practitioners to think creatively about how they might best leverage social media tools.

I thank Philanthropy411, as well as EPIP, COF and Daniel Lee, for giving this “emerging practitioner” a voice.

If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.


Grits Ain’t Groceries. They’re Hope.

Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Vincent Robinson, Managing Partner of The 360 Group.

by Vincent Robinson

These days, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the future of the social sector. I don’t mean to gloss over the past, certainly, but as our society continues to evolve and change, it’s hard not to be focused on what’s to come. This led me to hang around the Career Pathways program at the Council on Foundations.

From what I could tell, the 15 Pathways participants arrived on Thursday, well in advance of the conference. On Friday, they had mock interviews with executive search consultants (including yours truly) for a CEO role at a foundation that they themselves devised. My experience in interviewing the two participants was really terrific – they are so passionate, but also so smart, and so action-oriented. This was nice for me to see. We all want change, but how we go about it varies, and by dumb luck I got to interview two outstanding individuals who not only care, who not only want to make things happen, who not also have the chops to do it, but take time to think about themselves as leaders – their values, their relationships with others, and their own roles in service to others. I was inspired…

And then, I went to the Career Pathways “graduation” on Sunday morning. I was incredibly moved. Steve Gunderson, CEO of the Council on Foundations, talked about the issues facing leaders: globalization, community cohesion, government cuts, the role of corporations in social responsibility, new structures in philanthropy, and, of course diversity. He also announced that Renee Branch is now the Vice President for Professional Development, Diversity and Inclusion at the Council (congratulations, Renee… another great placement by The 360 Group!). Carol Larson from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation followed by connecting those issues to a career. What are the keys to a successful career? Taking risks and never stopping. Keep learning. Ask for help. Find yourself in a “cohort” with “positional partners” (which I read as “get some friends with whom you can exchange real feedback”). In a foundation context, that can be hard, but look for opportunities. Personally, I don’t see it as hard at all – foundation professionals are surrounded by resources that connect them to even more resources. Use them! I’d actually never heard Carol give a speech.  I’d only met for the first time that morning, but it was one of the warmest, most forthright talks I’ve ever heard. I was inspired again, not least because she acknowledged the role that people in her position can and should play – identify up-and-comers and give them big stuff to do! (Aside: in “Leadership for the 21st Century” on Tuesday morning, I heard my co-panelist Julie Rogers from the Meyer Foundation make the same point. These women are rocking philanthropy!)

But, no, that’s not enough inspiration for one day, is it? Speaking of women who rock, the commencement speaker from the Pathways class was Latonya Slack from The James Irvine Foundation. Wow. Before I get to the fun part, her characterization of the class was quite striking. It’s filled with people who have a variety of attributes — quiet determination; keen self-awareness; powerhouses of fire; able to leap complex concepts in a single bound; honest, forthright, funny; wise beyond one’s years; knowledgeable and in charge. Really? If this is the future of philanthropy, sign me up! The zinger, though, was her deft return to her southern roots and using grits (yes, northerners, grits) as a metaphor for the class. Grits are, I gather, because I too am a northerner (though I once had shrimp and grits at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill), are hearty and versatile. But they work best when together. Have you ever had one “grit”? They are solid, fundamental. They are “gritty” like sand, and tough like Dirty Harry. That’s her Career Pathways class. Yup. That’s all of us! Latonya noted that she prefers her grits savory rather than sweet. I’m more partial to oatmeal (which I likewise prefer savory), but after this talk, I’m not only more excited about the future of philanthropy, but I’ve pledged to eat more grits.

As I was leaving the conference, I ran into one of the Pathways participants. She asked me if I’d learned anything new at the conference. I said no… but that I’d met a whole raft of new people — and watching all that we all do and experience every day – the big wins and the “tremendous trifles”– is what keeps me inspired and really, really hopeful for the future of this field, our society and our world. Really.

If you found this blog post useful, please subscribe. On Twitter? Follow me @Philanthropy411.

Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.