Survey: Most Foundations Keep Funding Failures Under Wraps

More than 40 percent of foundation CEOs believe that their foundations are not investing enough time and money in developing a better understanding of their programs, according to survey released today.

The Cambridge, Mass.-based Center For Effective Philanthropy (CEP) surveyed 119 CEOs of private and community foundations that give a minimum of $5 million a year as part of its report, “Understanding & Sharing What Works: The State of Foundation Practice.” The 26-page report also includes information obtained by in-depth interviews with 41 CEOs.

Almost two-thirds of the CEOs say they understand very well or extremely well what is working as their group attempts to achieve its goals, but less than half say they understand very or extremely well what is not working.

While the CEOs concede that learning what is or is not working needs investment, more than 60 percent of them attribute the level of understanding of the programs to the level of effort their foundation puts into assessment and learning.

Other highlights of the report include:

  • One-third of the CEOs say foundations do not share more about what they know is or is not working because they don’t want to share mistakes and failures about programs or strategies that didn’t work.
  • Nearly one-third of the CEOs say that their foundation encounters pressures from its board of directors not to share information about failures.
  • Three-quarters of the CEOs say their foundations share at least some of its knowledge externally, most frequently with grantees and other foundations. However, fewer say that they have quite a bit of knowledge about what is or is not working in the programs of other foundations that are focused on the same or similar goals.
  • 80 percent of the CEOs say that the knowledge of what is or is not working is used to inform decisions that result in the continuation, reorientation, or termination of grants, programs, initiatives, or strategies.

The report includes specific case studies from Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Weingart Foundation, Communities Foundation of Texas, and Impetus-PEF. Foundations that were profiled show that it is feasible and desirable for foundations to invest in proactive learning and sharing. The hurdles identified in the report are a lack of capacity, reluctance to expose failure, and difficulty of determining what information is useful to communicate.

CEP will host a webinar about the survey results on Dec. 3 at 2 p.m.