I was excited to see Michael Q. Patton, Nathaniel Foote, and Jamie Radner’s recent article, “A Foundation's Theory of Philanthropy: What It Is, What It Provides, How to Do It” in the most recent issue of The Foundation Review. Why? Because it highlights the importance of aligning what a foundation seeks to accomplish (mission) with how to accomplish it (operations). While the idea of the “theory-of-philanthropy approach” is unique (and as the authors argue distinctive from a “theory of change” or “strategy”), the real value is in breaking down organizational silos that result in a foundation being at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive, to achieving its goals.
The importance of aligning foundation strategy, evaluation, learning, and operations is central to our work designing and implementing Strategic Learning and Evaluation Systems (SLES). A SLES seeks to address the disconnect that often exists between strategy, evaluation, and learning, but also attends to the environment (communications, grantmaking, IT/information systems, culture) in which they operate. Similarly, a “theory-of-philanthropy approach” explores questions of alignment between elements such as a foundation’s principles and values; approach to accountability, learning, and evaluation; organizational culture; governance; transparency approach and perspective; management of financial assets; engagement with the philanthropic field; and strategy. The “theory-of-philanthropy approach” may prove a useful tool in elevating where disconnects exists, and in that way gets us back to the basics of running a foundation well.
A foundation that exemplifies “the best of” in attending to how the organization’s operations, structures, and processes need to evolve as its strategies have shifted is Greater Texas Foundation (GTF).
GTF focuses on college preparation, access, persistence, and completion in the state of Texas. Historically, GTF’s grantmaking comprised student scholarships and community-responsive grants. But starting in 2007 under the guidance of a new CEO, Dr. Wynn Rosser, GTF also began to explore ways to be more strategic with its grantmaking, its convening power, and its public voice. Over the course of several years working with GTF, FSG has seen the Foundation evolve in both strategy and approach.
Strategically, GTF has layered in a place-based regional focus in addition to honing in on specific issues. GTF has started engaging in collective impact, intensified its partnership building, and engaged in policy change to complements place- and issue-focused investments. Key to the successful transition in strategy and approach has been the leadership of Dr. Rosser and GTF’s board, and in particular, their relentless focus on learning. GTF focuses as much on the roles it plays in the Texas education ecosystem (the how) as it does on its chosen issue areas (the what), and continually seeks feedback and data from grantees, partners, and fellow funders on what the Foundation can do better. The result is a foundation strategy that is both rigorous and adaptive, and an infrastructure and culture that support GTF’s ongoing evolution.
The core principles discussed in “A Foundation's Theory of Philanthropy: What It Is, What It Provides, How to Do It” are relevant to work with other types of organizations as well. For example, while developing a Strategic Learning and Evaluation System for a United Way client it became clear that the organization was operating under 2 different sets of assumptions about its approach to philanthropy. One was more as a traditional grantmaker to individual organizations and the other was about supporting ecosystems and networks of collaboration in the community. Through our conversations it became clear they had to choose which one would underpin their approach to learning and evaluation.
As foundations explore new ways of giving—through “venture philanthropy,” increasing market-based investments and investments in LLCs, or emergent strategy—I hope this serves as a reminder to attend to the complete set of implications that will equip a foundation to deliver on its mission, while attending to the needs of staff and grantees.