It’s great to see that so many people in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors are checking out Philamplify, NCRP’s new initiative providing “honest feedback to improve philanthropy.” Some thoughtful questions have come up about Philamplify, raised by Janet Camarena at GlassPockets and others, which I’d like to share along with my responses.

1. How did NCRP choose the first foundations to assess and how will future funders be chosen?

For this first cohort (the three completed and some that are forthcoming so stay tuned!), we chose a geographically diverse set of independent and family foundations with a range of asset sizes ($1 billion to $5+ billion), which are funding in key areas domestically such as education, health, environment and arts. Over time, our goal is to assess many of the 100 largest foundations (by assets and giving) in the country. Within that group of 100, we plan to adapt the methodology for corporate funders, community foundations and those with significant international portfolios. The reason we are focusing on the biggest foundations is because we want to examine and offer feedback on as many grant dollars as possible. But we certainly hope that the findings and recommendations in these reports will be a source of lessons and inspiration for many other grantmakers.

2. How flexible is NCRP regarding whether to allow foundations to opt out of the assessment?

We take an individualized approach to reaching out to foundations and exploring the timing, value and appropriateness of our methodology and process. Our general position is that this assessment process will result in valuable insights for any foundation, yet we know that the capacity of a foundation’s staff to be involved at any given moment can vary. On the other hand, as we started to approach potential willing funders, we realized that every foundation will have some completely legitimate reason why, even though they support the concept in theory, “Now is not a good time for us to do this.” The reality is that it’s never a good time, with all that grantmakers have on their plates, and yet isn’t it always a good time to find out what your stakeholders think you are doing well and what you can do better? Our methodology does not require extensive hours of foundation staff time to be implemented.

In the example that Janet Camarena raised about William Penn, we understood the foundation’s concerns and constraints and weighed those against what we perceived to be the community’s benefit if the foundation got timely feedback after a period of tumult. The foundation leadership could not guarantee that delaying the process until a new leader was hired would result in agreement to cooperate with the assessment process. So had we decided to wait, there is a strong possibility the assessment would never have happened. Coincidentally, the timing worked out well – our report and its actionable recommendations were ready for the foundation’s review the week the new managing director took up his post at William Penn.

3. To what extent and how does NCRP involve foundations in the assessment process?

We are open to involving foundations in the assessment process as much as they want to and have the capacity to do so, while holding to our core assessment criteria and set of questions. We invite each foundation CEO to tell us what they most want to learn, and to incorporate additional survey and interview questions beyond those we ask in every assessment. The foundation can also give suggestions of grantees, peers and other stakeholders they think we should interview about their work, as well as which members of their own staff and board to interview. We have also considered funder input on the appropriateness of specific methods, for example, whether it still makes sense to conduct a grantee survey if the foundation had a recent Grantee Perception Report (GPR) completed. (In one case, we decided it did not make sense.)

Even if a foundation’s leadership has chosen not to cooperate, we leave the door open for input from the foundation at any time. We share a report draft with every assessed foundation and invite feedback on its accuracy, while maintaining editorial control over the final report.

4. How does NCRP take into account the fact that many foundations do their own assessments of one type or another?

We absolutely do take those into account, as I indicated in the example above. We invite the foundation to share any recent assessments or evaluations it has conducted or commissioned, and we factor that into our own decision about methods. We do not want to reinvent the wheel or duplicate knowledge or information. For a forthcoming Philamplify assessment, the funder had commissioned a number of assessments, which we extensively reviewed. We engaged in dialogue with the evaluation director about whether and how our tool and process could best add value. Ultimately we all agreed it made sense to proceed and determined how to modify our methods accordingly.

5. Is assessing foundations without their permission “scary” or “controversial?”

I understand why having your work under scrutiny may cause anxiety. And attempts at changing systems and challenging the status quo may be viewed as “threatening” or “controversial” by some. But the only information we have to fear is the information we don’t have. It might be scary to find out what your grantees and peers really think of your grantmaking strategy and practices. Yet, I believe it’s worth the apprehension knowing that coming out of it, the assessment will answer the questions: Are the foundation’s strategies and practices as effective as they can be? How is the foundation perceived by its stakeholders? What can we do better to be more impactful on the issues and communities we care about?

Assessing foundations without their “permission” may be perceived as controversial to a sector that, unlike other industries, is not routinely subject to external scrutiny, both formal and informal. For example, One World Trust, an advisor to Glasspockets, assesses the largest international intergovernmental, non-governmental and corporate organizations, focusing on transparency, accountability and responsiveness to external stakeholders’ needs and interests. Someone in philanthropy recently pointed out that when a corporation makes a major change in direction or hires a new CEO, widespread discussion and debate ensues in the media and other public spheres. Yet, the same major shift at a foundation is only reported, but not discussed or debated openly. Philamplify aims to change that.

6. How much change can NCRP effect with an unwilling subject?

NCRP designed Philamplify to combine comprehensive assessments with “crowd-sourced” feedback precisely because we believe that any organization, whether it welcomes feedback and seeks to change, or does not, benefits from having external stakeholders who can help hold that organization to account.

Additionally, going through an evaluation process voluntarily does not guarantee action. How many commissioned reports are read and then put on a shelf? How many assessments are not even shared with all of the staff in the organization, much less with external audiences?

Philamplify is different because it makes the assessments public for all to see and discuss. And it asks philanthropic stakeholders to play an active role in holding all of philanthropy, including the assessed funders, to high standards.

Based on our experience so far with these first three foundations, at least some of what we found has rung true for them. We believe that if grantmakers act on our findings and recommendations, this will enhance their impact and effectiveness.

These are great questions, and the interest that Philamplify has garnered is proof that there’s a desire not just for discussions about transparency, knowledge-sharing and accountability in philanthropy, but also in doing something to move the sector forward around these key issues.

What do you think? Do you have other questions about Philamplify? Please share them in comments!

Lisa Ranghelli is the director of foundation assessment for NCRP.

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