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A Q&A with Fay Twersky, Director of the Effective Philanthropy Group

Jan 22, 2013


Q&As are a series of informal sessions with Foundation staff. Fay Twersky, an expert on philanthropy and the nonprofit sector, serves as director of the newly created Effective Philanthropy Group at the Hewlett Foundation.

Twersky has an extensive background in program design and evaluation. Most recently, she worked in Israel, advising Yad Hanadiv (the Rothschild Family Foundation). Before that, at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she helped develop guidelines for strategy and measurement across that foundation’s program areas. She was also a founding principal of BTW informing change, a firm that provides strategic consulting to foundations and nonprofit organizations.

Twersky holds bachelor’s degrees in rhetoric and Middle Eastern studies from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in city planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Foundation is bringing together its internal and external work on philanthropy into one unit called the Effective Philanthropy Group. How do you organize the work?

Overall, we are building our team to support and advance effectiveness within the Hewlett Foundation and also within the philanthropic sector overall.

The first thing that defines the group’s work is strategy. Our team will be available to work with each program as it plans or refines initiatives designed to contribute to solving problems in our areas of giving.

A second part of the work, related to the first, is evaluation. As the programs consider the initiatives they intend to pursue and the grants they intend to make, at that early point we need to be thinking about how they can evaluate the work to determine if we are making progress toward our goals. More specifically, throughout the Foundation, we want to be asking ourselves, What are the assumptions we are making? What do we want to test and learn about with these grants? It’s also important to start thinking about what signposts of progress to track along the way. Getting to this level of specificity about desired outcomes and assumptions can help to inform the soundness of a strategy.

A third part of the work is learning. Our organizational learning efforts will be designed to advance learning across program teams and with others outside the Foundation.

Is there an example we can use to show how it works?

Sure, let’s take our Environment Program’s strategy for western conservation. A while back, the Program set clear, measurable targets for how many acres and river miles its grantees hoped to protect. While Environment staff members have been monitoring progress over time, now they are at a point where they want to see how they did and refresh their strategy. Our team is working with them to articulate the questions they have about what happened. Working in collaboration, our teams are asking about the underlying science, and whether measuring acres and river miles is still the right way to measure progress as a proxy for preserving natural ecosystems. The same is true with regard to policy. Have there been supportive policies that advance these goals? Have decision makers become more educated about the issues? Answering these questions will help the environment team members determine if they have made the progress they are looking for. And it’s not just about successes. They ask where they have fallen short and why. Then they will take those lessons and use them to look five to seven years ahead and decide what their next targets should be and what grants should be made to achieve those targets.

And, in the spirit of advancing a broader learning agenda, the environment team hopes to share its lessons and approach with colleagues from other foundations and with key grantees.

Another part of the Effective Philanthropy Group’s work is organizational effectiveness. How does that work in practice?

It’s very common for a grantee’s biggest challenge not to be its ideas, but its ability to implement those ideas. We emphasize ideas and theories quite a lot in grantmaking, but it’s just as important if not more so to be able to execute those ideas. And nonprofits are typically undercapitalized. They don’t have the luxury of resources—time and money—to devote to their own development. They often can’t do what businesses do, things like strategic planning, building strong boards, leadership and staff development, and investing in technology. Those are all things that organizations need to do well in order to succeed over time. These are the things our organizational effectiveness grants support.

In practice, our group supports program staff in identifying grantees’ organizational needs and shaping grants to meet those needs. In the past decade, this has translated into more than 450 organizational effectiveness grants in the “unsexy” but essential work of strengthening nonprofit organizations.

Your group also is responsible for making grants to organizations whose job it is to improve the broader practice of philanthropy. Can you tell us about that?

As big as the Hewlett Foundation is, it’s still small compared to the entire philanthropic universe, which is growing. One of the principles that our board recently reaffirmed is a commitment to strengthening the field of philanthropy. Our own resources are limited compared to the large problems in the world. If we can strengthen the whole field of philanthropy, we can have enormous leverage in improving results for people that foundations serve.

Our philanthropy grantmaking has supported top-notch organizations like the Center for Effective Philanthropy and Stanford’s Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society in generating knowledge about how to be a great philanthropic giver. We have also supported institutions like Guidestar in building systems for collecting and sharing information about nonprofits—to help inform philanthropic giving more generally. The idea is that if donors are more informed, they are more likely to direct their giving to high performing organizations, thus achieving better results.

Can you talk a little bit more about evaluation? Haven’t foundations always evaluated the effectiveness of their grants? How is this different?

This field is evolving. Historically, there have always been philanthropists concerned about results. And that’s still true today. A hundred years ago there were great philanthropists—Carnegie, Ford, Rothschild—who achieved real results before the term “strategic philanthropy” even existed. They cared about results and they employed diligence, measurement, and disciplined grantmaking to achieve those results.

Also, there have been and still are evaluation skeptics—people in philanthropy who do not think it is money well spent to measure results. Some argue that measurement stifles innovation. Others argue that evaluation is too hard to do well, that giving should simply be values-based, not evidence-based. But, I think that is a false dichotomy. Here at the Foundation, we believe that giving should be both values-based and evidence-based.

We have probably gotten more sophisticated in recent years in how we track results in the nonprofit sector. Paul Brest (the former president of the Hewlett Foundation) has written about “a decade of outcome-oriented philanthropy,” and the many efforts contributing to the acceleration of progress in measurement. It is true that there are many organizations, large and small, that conduct evaluations. There have been many more methodologies developed to be used in applied evaluation—both qualitative and quantitative—supporting rigorous long-term studies and shorter term reliable feedback loops. There have also been many faltering steps. A lot of reports still get written and shelved. And still a fair number of poor quality evaluations are conducted.

But I think many in the field are increasingly integrating evaluation early into strategic thinking, to understand what we need to learn along the way to help us adjust course. And the field is increasingly using evaluation to improve.

How is the Hewlett Foundation approaching evaluation these days?

This past year, we developed common evaluation principles and practices that apply to all of our programs and areas of giving. We set for ourselves seven evaluation principles and developed a guide that elaborates how those principles find expression in practice—when designing evaluations, implementing them and using the findings. I know this may not sound exciting to some, but this development process was really fun. We worked with staff throughout the Foundation in a nine-month, highly productive process.

Our first and most important principle is to start with purpose. Most evaluation conversations start with metrics. They say, “How are we going to measure X or Y?” “What’s the best indicator for this or that?” And that is important. But it’s not the first conversation to have. The first conversation is about purpose. “Why do you want to do an evaluation? How are you going to use it? If you’re going to do an evaluation, is it to make a decision? When do we want to make decisions and what does our board want to know? What are the critical questions for which we need answers? Is it for the grantees and, if so, have we talked to them about what they want to know and how they want to use the evaluation? Do we expect to share the evaluation with the broader field?” There are a lot of important questions to wrestle with before you get to metrics. Starting with a clarifying purpose provides a compass for the rest of the evaluation planning.

You’ve just gotten started, but what have you learned so far about the Effective Philanthropy Group’s potential?

There is a lot of interest in making philanthropy more effective—to achieve a more lasting impact with philanthropic dollars.
Within the Foundation, our group can contribute a lot, strengthening strategies, evaluation and learning, and that has everything to do with the terrific staff and grantees that we have here. 

Externally, our potential is limited only by our own vision of what we do and how we do it. We will be looking to others in philanthropy in the months ahead for how we can best support the sector overall.  It’s a big undertaking, but we’re excited to get started.

Learn more about the Effective Philanthropy Group here >>

Read Evaulation Principles and Practices: An Internal Working Paper here >>