Those spiral-bound volumes of memos in black-and-white 12 point Times Roman font stacked up on your desk. That iPad portal with tabs and bookmarks and links to more files than you care to count, let alone read.
Yes, I’m referring to board books – those triennial, quarterly, or (god help you) monthly volumes that we foundations produce for our boards.
Meant to instill confidence and help boards usefully engage in strategic issues, producing these books can become a heroic effort in its own right – and often the driving force behind a foundation’s yearly cycle of deadlines. But are we really helping our boards understand the progress we’ve made, or the challenges we’re facing, when we force them to wade through 300 pages of text? As one program officer put it, “We should be giving them USA Today, not Anna Karenina.”
Last year our president decided it was time to for a change. Over a period of nine months, we redesigned and rolled out a new set of materials for our board.
What did we change?
We live and breathe our work each day, but our board – busy people with important day jobs – needed to be reminded each meeting of what we’re trying to accomplish. So we created a series of upfront framing materials – a one-pager summarizing the goals of each program; a timeline of all our strategies and initiatives; a pie chart of our total budget by program area. Each program’s materials also began with a summary of goals and budgets.
We also rearranged and streamlined some things. Traditionally, each program listed their grants in alphabetical order and there was a separate list of paragraphs describing the grants. Instead, we ordered the grants by strategies and then by size so board members could better recognize patterns and clusters of work. We also numbered each grant and put the paragraphs at the back, so board members could easily look up any particular grant they were interested in. We also removed the multi-paged tables in which we painstakingly detailed all the indicators we were tracking for each strategy of our work. Instead, we piloted an approach by which each program rated its progress via a Harvey ball icon (similar to the ones Consumer Reports uses for its ratings), and then wrote narrative text to explain their assessment.
Last, we made it easier on the eyes. Each program got its own consistent color used throughout the book. It added vibrancy and helped the board visually track our programs. We used fonts that were easier to read (Franklin Gothic and Georgia) and added more photos and charts.
So how’d it go?
You’ll never get it right the first time. When our task force came up with a recommended design that the president approved, everything looked beautiful, perfect, and ready to go. But some things turned out to be harder to implement than we expected and we had to adjust the initial design. One year, later, we are still making adjustments. The Harvey balls mentioned above did show progress in a quickly digestible format, but they weren’t nuanced enough for board or staff. So this year, we are experimenting with a multi-faceted rating system that includes long-term progress, contextual factors, and partnerships. While we think it’s more informative, my hunch is we’ll need to tweak it again next year.
Involve all parts of the foundation, but be clear about roles and decision rules. Within a foundation, the board book touches every part of the building. Take for example, the grant recommendations list—Finance checks the numbers, Grants Management and Legal verify compliance and structure, Programs take responsibility for the content, IT creates the software that generates the list, Communications reviews wording, and the President’s Office manages the whole process. We assembled a cross-foundation task force for designing the book, but when the inevitable questions arose during implementation, it wasn’t clear who was responsible for answering those questions or making those decisions. Was it still the design team? If not them, who? Was it the president? Was it those implementing the changes? Being clearer up front about roles and decision rules during the iterative implementation phase would have saved a lot of confusion.
Think holistically. When we started this process, we limited our scope to revising the November board book, our “big” book, in which budgets are approved and annual memos are written. In the process of re-designing the November book, we realized that the other books all referenced the November book. It didn’t make sense to re-design one without considering the others. So we ultimately revised our scope to work on the other two so that the books were not disjointed. Luckily, our task force agreed to stay on for this additional work.
We didn’t make our ultimate goal of cutting our board book in half, though we did get it down to 126 pages, from 194 the year before. Even so, I feel exactly the way one board member does: “ I don’t miss the old book at all.”
Do you love your board book? Or have a good board book revision story? We’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
March 19, 2014 — By June Wang and Elisha Smith Arrillaga
The Hewlett Foundation has long been associated with the term strategic philanthropy. But respectful debate is a critical and healthy aspect of any field. When our president Larry Kramer arrived, he immersed himself in the field of philanthropy and learned a lot about the different ways of approaching philanthropy. He thought it would be valuable to continually expose the Hewlett community to these different approaches as well. As a result, we’ve started hosting a series of lunchtime talks where our staff—and other foundations and grantees—can explicitly hear from those who have different perspectives on philanthropy. This has turned out to be a really interesting exercise.
To date, we’ve been lucky to hear from individuals who challenged our assumptions about what effective philanthropy looks like (Bill Somerville of Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, whose talk is featured below), offered grantmaking models that differ from our own (Quinn Delaney and Melanie Cervantes of Akonadi Foundation), or helped us think about the role of foundations in a larger context (Rob Reich of the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society). The ideas they, and many others, offered are far too rich to convey in a single blog post, and we’ll be sharing many of these talks here on the blog over the coming weeks and months.
Having spent the time (and more importantly, other people’s time) gathering these different perspectives, what do we take away from it all so far? We can’t speak on behalf of the entire Foundation, but a few themes stand out for us:
Philanthropy is full of healthy tension, and we often talk about the poles: academics versus those “on the ground;” pursuing strategic goals versus investing in organizations; investing in organizations versus investing in people; quick and easy grant applications versus strong due diligence; strategic philanthropy versus responsive philanthropy. While it’s easy to talk about the extremes, most of the time, we’re trying to find our way between them. Clear goals and strategies are important, so that the sum of our grantmaking adds up to more than just the individual grants—but we also want to build strong organizations and form true partnerships. Grantees are not contractors. We need to create processes that are easy on grantees, but while being responsible stewards. We need solid research and evidence, but we also need to listen to and honor experience and wisdom. By recognizing the extremes, we can better find our place along the spectrum.
We need to find even better ways of getting dissenting feedback. In the invitations we give to our speakers, we ask them to challenge us in our work. However, we have realized two things: 1) it remains hard to get honest, dissenting feedback in a foundation—even from other foundations, and 2) we desperately need it. The best conversations have occurred when speakers had something critical to say, or questioned our approach. It may be asking a lot of one speaker to challenge a roomful of Hewlettonians, but we need to find other avenues for getting feedback on our strategies and processes, and to get that feedback from a wider group of individuals—not just friends and family. The blog is a great forum for many things, but it can lead to speech-writing rather than real conversation and dialog.
We need to create more spaces to integrate the voices of constituents and communities. Many of the speakers brought up the importance of incorporating local knowledge into grantmaking decisions. This can be challenging for a foundation whose work is often at the national and international policy level. But it’s still critically important. In 2014, we are continuing our speaker series with an additional focus on constituent voice and both our Philanthropy and Global Development and Population programs are exploring grants to support this type of work. We’re looking forward to learning more about how we can do this successfully.
So what’s changed as a result of what we’ve heard from others so far? Well, truthfully, many things remain the same. While it’s good to think about the merits of providing only project support or only general operating support, we continue to believe in retaining the flexibility to provide both depending on what’s appropriate. And we continue to believe in setting goals and strategies for our work. But there are also things we plan to do differently. We will be starting some internal conversations around how to continually evolve our strategy development processes, so that it incorporates more constituent voice and less false precision. We have been thinking about how to get better feedback, and looking hard at what we want to do differently based on our recent Grantee Perception Report. We are also thinking about how we can streamline and “right-size” our grant application and reporting forms, so as not to be so burdensome on our grantees or ourselves.
Although the Hewlett Foundation is not planning to depart from strategic philanthropy any time soon, these speakers have been and will continue to be important in helping us question our assumptions and sharpen our thinking. Hearing from those outside our walls is a critical component of continuous learning, and we look forward to sharing our thoughts with you. We also hope that whether at philanthropy conferences or in your individual conversations with funders, you too find ways to spark healthy debate about philanthropy.