Last week, I spent three hours on two long conference calls . . . and I can’t wait to do it again. Now maybe you read that and think something like I bet that’s his entry for “Most Unlikely Opening for a Blog.” Except it happens to be true.
The idea for the calls came from Fay Twersky, director of our Effective Philanthropy Group. As part of the Foundation’s ongoing effort to work more openly and transparently, she suggested holding an open conference call with our grantees. We could share important news, she explained, and, more important, could let them ask questions they might have of me or of our program directors. The plan was to hold something akin to a corporate shareholders’ meeting—a town hall-like forum for conversation, inquiry, and dialogue.
We weren’t sure it would work. To begin with, everyone is busy and we didn’t know how many people would participate. Even if people did participate, we couldn’t be sure what kinds of questions they would ask. It’s an unfortunate fact that grantees are sometimes reluctant to ask us hard questions, presumably for fear the message will be unwelcome or perceived as biting the hand that feeds them. (To which I can say only that the concern is misplaced: we have thick skins here at the Hewlett Foundation and would much rather know what you think so we can make changes if necessary.) We also worried about whether the questions would be of broad enough interest to engage the whole audience. Our grantees work in disparate fields and face vastly different challenges in their day-to-day work. Would people who work on family planning in Africa find value in listening to questions about performing arts in the Bay Area or conserving the Boreal Forest?
Still, we thought the idea worth trying. So we sent an invitation to all our active grantees. To make participation as easy as possible we decided not to ask for RSVPs, and we blocked out time for two calls—one in the early morning, another the following day in the late afternoon—to accommodate grantees in different time zones around the world.
The first call was only so-so. There were fewer participants than we had hoped, and they asked only a handful of questions. The questions were good—touching on things like our new blog, our processes for evaluation, and our rationale for term limiting program officers—but it was clear that participants weren’t entirely sure what they could or should ask. We ran out of questions before the allotted time had passed and ended the call a few minutes early.
We used the day between the two calls to think about what we might do better. I had framed the first call around the results of our most recent Grantee Perception Report, which may have left participants unsure about posing questions that had nothing to do with the survey. So I opened the second call without any reference to the GPR and instead emphasized that we were eager to talk about anything and everything. At the urging of several colleagues, I also focused on speaking more slowly, as even my own staff said I was hard to follow, which probably discouraged some potential participants.
The second call went much better. The time of day made a big difference, and more than twice as many callers were on the line. Participants asked wonderful, challenging, interesting questions on topics ranging from how we can better support grantees during turbulent economic times to how we think about partnerships with government or with other foundations, how we balance short-term expectations for individual grantees with the long-term outcomes we hope to achieve, and more. We took eighteen questions and went a few minutes over the allotted hour and a half and there were still questions in the queue when we ended the call. (We answered these separately off-line.)
I found the calls challenging and interesting, nerve-wracking at moments, but exhilarating and informative. And fun. On balance, the experiment was a clear success, and we’ll definitely do it again. I hope to reach even more of our grantees as word spreads. It’s a wonderful opportunity to get and give feedback. It’s also an opportunity to foster a sense of community, to give grantees a feel for the breadth of the Foundation’s work and for each other. More than a few wrote me afterwards to say they hadn’t realized how many things we support and were surprised how much they got from hearing about wholly disparate fields. Most of all, it’s an opportunity for us to listen and learn.
Of course, no need to wait. If you have questions or comments about the Foundation and its work, please let us know. We want to hear from you.
It is, I believe, generally recognized that collaboration among funders is important, because none of us has the resources to make serious inroads on big problems by ourselves. Yet despite widespread acknowledgment of its value, I’ve been surprised by how difficult it can be to form fruitful collaborations with other funders. Collaboration happens, but less than it could—even though foundations are unregulated and not competing with each other.
The question is, why?
Many people say the fault lies with foundation presidents and board members, who some think discourage collaboration because of ego or to avoid sharing credit. I haven’t encountered this myself and doubt it as an explanation. More plausible—and this is something I have witnessed—is that presidents and boards can make collaboration difficult by becoming overly directive and inflexible about the specifics of where and how to make grants.
A bigger problem—bigger because it inheres in the structure of most foundations—is the agency cost associated with dispersed decision-making. As a practical matter, collaborating on any particular project or program requires buy-in from a foundation’s program officer, program director, president, and board—each with different degrees of knowledge, different levels of commitment to existing strategies, and different incentives to change. Not surprisingly, aligning so many differences can be challenging.
Ongoing collaboration is hard, for instance, when program officers from different foundations agree but must wait months for their respective boards to sign off. A president who wants to support a request from another foundation may be reluctant to override a more knowledgeable and informed program officer who does not want to veer from an ongoing strategy the program officer devised. A program director may discourage the president or board from collaborating on a particular strategy, even one the relevant program officer supports, if this could affect the allocation of resources among strategies within his or her particular program. And so on.
Funders can overcome these obstacles, as we see in collaborations that already happen. But it’s not easy, and I have increasingly come to believe that overcoming these hurdles—whether by persuading foundations to be more flexible about process or by aligning their internal constituencies—is difficult because there is a dearth of what is known in international relations theory as “diffuse reciprocity.”
I haven’t blogged in a while, and instead of devoting this space to a single item, I thought I’d catch you up on a number of recent developments at the Hewlett Foundation.
First, you may have noticed that we’ve renamed our blog. “Work In Progress” was a good name, but it feels a tad too earnest. So in the Silicon Valley spirit of rapid prototyping and iterating, popularized by design thinking, we decided to just change it. If we don’t like it, we’ll change it again.
I hope you’ve been reading Ruth Levine’s “Friday Notes.” While they are one of my favorite things about Fridays, I confess to being somewhat competitive. So I’ve decided to take Ruth on. Henceforth, I’ll be offering these "Tuesday Notelets.” I can’t write as fast as Ruth, so they’ll be shorter than Ruth’s Notes (that’s why we’re calling mine “notelets”). I’m sure you’ll find them interesting, though. I’ll be checking the Google Analytics on this, so please don’t let me down. Whether or not you actually read them, I’d appreciate it if you would just click on them a lot.
Speaking of strategic philanthropy (because we’re always speaking of strategic philanthropy around here), a recent evaluation that involved a robust randomized control trial suggests that our approach to grant making does no better than random chance. Before acting on this somewhat unexpected finding, I want to see if we can replicate it internally. So we’re going to take a portion of our grantmaking portfolio and throw darts at a dartboard to select a control group of grantees. We’ll be looking closely at these so-called “bullseye” grantees to see if they do better at achieving results than those we select through our normal rigorous strategic approach. Fingers crossed everyone!
It amazes me how many people think that I’m the president of HP. Anyone who really knows me, after all, knows how much I really, really hate computers. (And don’t get me started on tracked changes. But I digress.) Other people think I work for the Packard Foundation, or for any number of other organizations that have either Hewlett or Packard in the title. When I first told my mom about this job, she couldn’t understand why I would leave the law school to go into the home printer business. To solve this annoying brand confusion problem, we are going to propose a merger with the Packard Foundation, the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, the HP Foundation, and HP itself. The new entity will be named HF-PF-LPCH-HPF-HP.
Here’s another piece of really exciting news. If you read my initial post about transparency back in November, you know how truly committed I am to sharing everything I can about the Hewlett Foundation, and that should include what it’s like to be a foundation president. To that end, I’ve agreed to be a contestant on the TV show Big Brother (I wanted to do Survivor but worried that at my age I’d be voted off the Island too quickly). A little unorthodox, perhaps, but we pride ourselves on experimentation and risk, and this seems like a terrific opportunity in that light. I promise to watch my language and always wear a robe or towel around the hot tub.
Finally, inasmuch as we’re in the heart of the technology world in Silicon Valley, it seems crazy to make grants using such antiquated means of payment like money. So over the next eighteen months, we'll be transitioning to Bitcoin. (But we're already planning our move to Dogecoin. Dogecoin is the future, man, and we want to get with the program.) I don’t actually know how Bitcoin works, but I read that interview where Mark Andreeson takes Warren Buffet behind the shed for criticizing it and decided the whole cryptocurrency thing sounds really cool.
That’s all the news I have for now on this April 1. Hope you keep clicking, especially here.
Here are three statements that shouldn’t be controversial: climate change is real; human activities are a major factor contributing to it; and the path we are on will lead to massive social, economic, and human suffering here in the United States and around the world. Yet whenever the subject comes up, in venues large (like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th Report, which synthesizes 9,000 studies prepared by more than 800 authors from 40 countries) and small (a blog post last week by Erin Rogers of our Environment Program on the need to focus on carbon pollution rather than adaptation), some people, for whatever reason, want to continue a debate that should be regarded as settled.
In our case, critics challenged the scientific consensus on climate change, questioned our motives, and tried to change the subject. One pointed to the PBS NewsHour (which we support) as being unwilling to air the views of skeptics, and intimated that the Hewlett Foundation is responsible for silencing dissent on that program. But even if we were telling the NewsHour what to air (we’re not, of course—our grant to them is for general operating support, and long predates our work on climate change), what of the thousands of other news outlets, governments, and scientific academies around the world that have reached the same conclusion about the irrefutable reality of climate change?
Ours is just one small blog, of course, and it has attracted only a few critical comments. On a far larger scale, critics of climate science have seized on a finding by the IPCC as evidence that the threat posed by global warming is overstated if not downright fabricated. In particular, critics trill that the panel’s 5th report indicates that the Earth’s temperature has not increased as much as predicted by the 4th report released six years ago, and in fact, has slowed in recent years—a trend the skeptics say the IPCC cannot adequately explain.
This is, if you will pardon the pun, just so much hot air. In fact, the 5th Report differs from the 4th in precisely the ways we should expect (and want) from good science, relying on continued work and refinements in collecting data to produce better, more accurate models. More important, the IPCC has an explanation for the slowdown in rising temperatures that makes quite good sense.
Some of you may have noticed that the Hewlett Foundation has a new tagline. (If not, you’ll just have to read a bit further to learn what it is.) Wait, you may say, a tagline? You mean, like what we hear on NPR in the morning? Why would anyone care about that?
I actually think the tagline is important—not in itself, but for what it represents and what it reflects. A tagline is a kind of mission statement, an effort to encapsulate something important about our values and objectives. On the surface, we’re hard to pin down. Certainly we make grants across a broad range of areas: “to solve social and environmental problems at home and around the globe,” as our former tagline put it. But that doesn’t actually tell you anything about who we are. It’s a vague and rather workmanlike description of what we do that leaves the really important questions unaddressed: What are we trying to accomplish? How are we trying to accomplish it? Exploring a new tagline is really a process of discovering, articulating, and in this way, helping to define our aspirations and our culture.
We asked for help from the firm Neimand Collaborative, which has worked with our Communications team on a number of projects. Though this was a small project, the firm’s principals, Rich Neimand and Dave Clayton, took it on personally. Dave interviewed members of our staff, a number of our grantees, members of our Board, and others familiar with the Foundation. He also spoke with some people who know less about us, but a lot about our field.
We asked Dave to do more than solicit praise. We wanted to know what people think is notable about the Foundation, both good and bad. Find out what people really think about us, we told him, what we do well but also where we need to improve. Rich’s job was then to take what Dave discovered and use it to develop a tagline that captures our values, addresses critiques, and taps into something meaningful. All in a few words.
That’s no mean feat. Bear in mind that a tagline also has to capture something real and ring true. “Just do it” could mean anything. But it works for Nike, both reflecting and shaping the company and its products. Same thing for Apple’s “Think Different.” I could go on, but I think you get the point.
Gratifyingly, Rich and Dave had a lot of positive adjectives to offer when they presented their findings—words like smart, forceful, decisive, creative, pragmatic, and optimistic. My favorite was haimish, a Yiddish word that translates roughly as homey and unpretentious. But while this was all very interesting and affirming, Dave also uncovered some helpful criticisms. Some people find you sterile, he told us, overly intellectual and analytic, and these qualities can make Hewlett seem aloof and distant from the work. That matched another critique that popped up: namely, that while we are very clear about our strategies, we are sometimes less clear about the reasons we do what we do.
With that as background, Rich and Dave set out to find language that would reflect the strengths and respond to the deficits. According to Rich, taglines traditionally fall into three categories, with some overlap: those that talk about why, those that talk about how, and those that reflect ultimate aspirations. The key, he explained, is to choose a tagline that emphasizes and reflects the most important of these.
In our case, Rich and Dave encouraged us to combine the second and third categories by focusing on how we do what we aspire to do. I think the thing we do best, and our colleagues in the field seem to agree, is to work by setting clear goals and carefully tracking how well we are achieving those goals. We are by no means the only foundation that does this, but it’s a really important part of who we are, something deep in the Hewlett Foundation’s DNA. To this end, we try to be smart and rigorous, and value being creative, collaborative, strategic, and focused on results. At the same time, we do not want people to miss that our work is animated by a deep sense of caring and humanity.
Sounds good, we said. Now capture all that in a phrase.
The tagline we chose is “Helping people build measurably better lives.”
We think this does a remarkably good job of capturing the elements described above. In talking about “helping people,” for instance, we mean to indicate that we are collaborative, that we want to work with and help others rather than do for them.
The word “build” harkens back to Bill Hewlett, the engineer, who was a true builder. We want to work with others to build things that improve the world and add value. This combines creativity and innovativeness with the workmanlike approach necessary to succeed.
“Measurably” is probably the word that will stand out most—the Hewlett Foundation’s “verdant.” To insiders in the world of philanthropy, it expresses our commitment to making sure we are getting something done. And it’s true: we spend a lot of time and energy trying to measure progress, so we can know if we’re on the right track and determine how to correct our course if not. Our work is tangible, and we hold ourselves accountable for results. To the general public and those not heavily involved in philanthropy, “measurably” will reflect something else we care about, namely, that the difference our work makes be appreciable and significant. We liked the word precisely because it captures both those connotations.
Finally, we wanted to remind ourselves, as well as others, just why we’re in this business—and that’s to improve people’s lives. Maybe that should go without saying, but like many things that ought to go without saying, it needs to be said, and emphasized, anyway.
When I first proposed reexamining the tagline, I felt almost sheepish. The Hewlett Foundation pays little attention to self-promotion (that itself is a core value here), so why bother putting time and effort into something so marginal. Instead, the project proved to be both interesting and fruitful—an opportunity to reaffirm and remind ourselves about who we are and who we want to be. And the final output is actually kind of catchy. Not quite “We Try Harder” or “Don’t Leave Home Without It,” but pretty memorable in its way.
Today, we launch the Hewlett Foundation’s new blog, “Work in Progress.” Why, you may wonder, should the Hewlett Foundation start a blog? And why now? Aren’t there enough bloggers out there already sharing their views? And don’t existing blogs already provide channels for us to express our views, if express them we must?
Perhaps. But this blog is about more than providing an outlet for members of the Hewlett community to air their opinions (though it will be that, too). As the name “Work in Progress” hopefully suggests, this blog is about learning. Because grantmaking is always a work in progress.
That grantmaking involves constant learning is one of the best things about working in philanthropy. It makes every day a challenge and, potentially, an adventure. We learn about what is happening in the fields in which we make grants. We learn about which of our strategies are working, and which are not. We learn about why they are or are not working. We learn about the successes and failures of particular tactics and particular grantees. We learn about how to make grants, how to monitor them, and how to measure and evaluate outcomes. In a word, we learn how to “do philanthropy.” (Okay, so that’s two words.)