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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Strengthening Our Sector 

March 11, 2014 — By Lindsay Louie and Fay Twersky

Since Paul Brest first joined the Hewlett Foundation as President in 2000, the Foundation has made over $65 million in grants to build a stronger philanthropic sector. With these grants, we aim to support more effective philanthropic practice so that all foundations are better equipped to make social and environmental change. We call this our Philanthropy Grantmaking Program, and today it sits within the Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group.

Transition points can provide natural windows to reflect on progress to-date, and several such transitions occurred in late 2012 and early 2013: Larry Kramer joined the Foundation as President, Fay Twersky became the first Director of our newly formed Effective Philanthropy Group, and Lindsay Louie joined the Foundation as the Program Officer for the Philanthropy Grantmaking Program. The reflection process we undertook has included third-party evaluations; consultations with grantees, field experts and fellow funders; and thoughtful analysis by both our staff and consultants.

To share our work with the field, we created the 14-minute video included in this post. The video is a shortened version of one that we first produced to share our reflections with the Hewlett Foundation’s Board of Directors last November. The video highlights our strategies, key research and grantees, and the external evaluation findings. It features former Hewlett Foundation President Paul Brest, Stanford Social Innovation Review Managing Editor Regina Ridley, Center for Effective Philanthropy CEO Phil Buchanan, Lead Evaluators Paul Harder and Lucy Bernholz, and others.

As the video shows, we have pursued two strategies to dateone that we will continue, and one that we will not. We believe it is important to share openly about this strategy that didn’t bear out as we expected. In doing so we also want to be clear that our experience and decision are not a reflection on the work of individual grantees we funded. We also want to be clear that we are being open about this work so that our experiences might be helpful to others. We welcome thoughts, reflections and feedback.

For those who’d prefer a written summary of our reflections and links to the two evaluations, they are below.

Again, we have pursued two main strategies in the Philanthropy portfolio. First is our Knowledge Creation and Dissemination strategy, which aims to inform, influence, and improve funders’ thinking and decision-making. To achieve this goal, we have supported research, analysis, writing, and the development of tools on effective philanthropy by academic centers, consulting firms, philanthropic sector organizations, and other practitioners. Of course, knowledge is only useful if it gets into the hands of those who can use it, so we also supported dissemination effortsboth by the knowledge producers and via additional channels such as journals, websites and social media. We commissioned an independent, third-party evaluation of this strategy in 2013. This assessment found that a substantial amount of high-quality knowledge has been produced and shared, and that there are good indications that it has positively influenced philanthropic practice. As we head into 2014, we will continue this strategy and are currently considering refinements based on the evaluation findings and recommendations.

We launched a second strategy in 2006 called the Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative. This Initiative’s goal was that by 2015, ten percent of individual philanthropic donations in the US (or $20 billion), would be influenced by meaningful, high-quality information about nonprofit organizations’ performance. However, extensive donor-segmentation research completed in 2010 called Money for Good suggests that only three percent of individual donors compare information about relative performance when deciding which organization to support. The majority of donors make giving decisions based on things like loyalty, personal connections, and faith-based commitments. Further, the quality, reliability and volume of nonprofit performance data provided through various platforms are all quite variable, and thus its usefulness to donors is questionable. An independent, third-party evaluation of this strategy in 2012 revealed that our grants have not made much of a dent in these patterns. Rather than try to “fix” this strategy, we are winding it down responsibly.

We are in the very early stages of developing a new strategy that will be a collective effort by several funders together and focused primarily on increasing two-way openness in foundations—more on that later this year.

We hope that our openness with this blog post, video, and the evaluation links all contribute to helping others learn from our experiences—both the successes and the strikeouts. We have learned many lessons from these reflections and strive to apply them going forward. So, whether you have thoughts about our work or how it relates to your own, we’d love to hear from you.