Major foundations are stumbling over themselves to report lessons learned on disappointing initiatives, but there is a suprising sameness in What Doesn't Work.
Right after I talked about the report of the James Irvine Foundation (EIN 94-1236937 Form 990) about a disappointing outcome of a major project, Stephanie Strom in the New York Times reported that this kind of soul-searching exercise has become something of a fad among large foundations:
The Carnegie Corporation of New York (EIN 13-1628151 Form 990) published Looking Back at Zimbabwe to explain why it supported a disastrous process to draft a new constitution while the country was under the control of Robert Mugabe. When that constitution was roundly rejected in a referendum, Mr. Mugabe's rule became even more authoritarian. But Looking Back is a largely impersonal narrative of what happened, which appears to place most of the blame on other foundations, the U.N. and the staff. (Admittedly, Carnegie's contribution of $200,000 toward the $10 million project was a minor one.) There is only one mention of the board, and no explanation of why they approved the project or whether they considered anything other than the staff's recommendation before giving the project the green light.
Back in the 1990s, the Annenberg Foundation (EIN 23-6257083 Form 990) marshaled over $1 billion of its own and other foundations' money for a program to improve public schools. But in the various reports that are included in the evaluations, he sense of disappointment is evident. For instance, the Chicago report concludes that the effort needed a better thought out map of change, fewer schools, better connections with the political system and with the school system, and more time (page xi, on page 17 of the pdf file).
The W.K. Kellogg Foundation (EIN 36-6030614 Form 990 33Mb!) gets honest about how it got caught up in a dot-com scheme. The SeaChange evaluation tells how in 1998 they and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (EIN 43-6064859 Form 990 75Mb!!) bought into an idea from the Echoing Green Foundation (EIN 13-3424419 Form 990) to develop a network of support for social entrepreneurs. After a conference held at the Wingspread conference center in Racine, Wisconsin, they found a leader in Jim Pitofsky, who then spent several years honing the idea, including presenting it to over 1,000 people in a listening tour. The plan was to start a web portal to match up social entrepreneurs and potential investors. W.K. Kellogg provided $735,000 of the $2.5 million seed money. The group received its 501(c)(3) status in July of 2000; the board met for the first time in January, 2001 and elected officers in March 2001. The site eventually launched just two weeks before 9/11 and it was gone in a year, merged into a group now known as the Social Enterprise Summit (EIN 74-2964255 Form 990). Mr. Pitofky is now director of Hands on Bay Area (EIN 77-0195144 Form 990).
The William & Flora Hewlett Foundation (EIN 94-1655673 Form 990 30Mb!) wins the prize for the most extensive what-went-wrong report with the 81-page Hard Lessons about Philanthropy and Social Change from the Neighborhood Improvement Initiative by Prudence Brown and Leila Fiester. Yet the pattern is very similar to that of the after school program that proved so unsatisfactory for the James Irvine Foundation. Again, there was an extensive process to identify grassroots needs by working with the community, followed by a mid-course correction that reduced the goals in order to achieve measurable results within a prescribed timeframe. Again, difficulties emerged from the use of intermediary groups and their changing role and status. But to me this report, for all its length, often just recounts and tallies all the things that could have had a better outcome—there is no clear diagnosis.
And to me, all of these reports describe variations on a single theme: unquestioning faith in grassroots process as a source for answers to difficult problems. Although some of the reports mention the absence of a theory of change, there is in fact a theory behind all of these failures: the theory that the People know best, and all we have to do is give them a voice, listen to them, and then do what they want. From Zimbabwe to public schools to social entrepreneurs to disadvantaged neighborhoods, the approach of listening to the people produced results that ranged from disappointing to disastrous.
They also highlight the consequences of the lack of accountability in the foundation sector. The New York Times article ends with a candid quote from Paul Brest of the Hewlett Foundation (2005 compensation: $606,142) that "there’s no harm in sharing our failures, too. The only thing at stake is our egos." Clearly, this is not a man whose job depends upon achieving results. And the Irvine Foundation report points out that U.S. tax laws put foundations under pressure to spend a certain amount of money every year, regardless, which reduces any incentive for boards or staff might have to make sure their plans are workable.
So long as foundation managements are evaluated primarily on the basis of what they can spend and not on the results they achieve, we will continue to see grandiose, poorly thought out projects, followed by thick reports of lessons learned.