President's Corner

Achieving High Performance

February 11, 2013

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

We have done a self assessment to measure our effectiveness and progress.

Since the Foundation’s first days, we have innovated relentlessly to address poverty and expand opportunities for all families in the United States: We built an organization from scratch with the aim of balancing an entrepreneurial spirit with a rigorous commitment to stewardship. As I look back on 2012, I see it as a year in which Marguerite Casey Foundation achieved internal strength and its highest level of performance to date.

For the past two years, I have tracked our team performance using the Drexler/Sibbet Team Performance Model. The model has seven phases, ranging from Orientation to Renewal. A year ago, I assessed that we were entering the fifth phase of the model, Implementation, during which “teams turn the corner when they begin to sequence work and settle on who does what, when, and where in action.” Teams at this level demonstrate clear processes, alignment and disciplined execution, and address any conflict, confusion, nonalignment or missed deadlines. We entered this phase, not coincidentally, with the completion of our five-year Equal Voice and communication plans and with renewed investments in organizational development.

As is our nature, we did not settle for doing the minimum level of work during the past year. We addressed the priorities identified by Drexler/Sibbet and went beyond them by expanding our capacity, institutionalizing cross-team collaboration, resolving processes and personnel issues where nonalignment was evident, and pushing and supporting our team to take their individual and collective performance to a higher level. Perhaps most gratifying is that our Leadership Team became the creative problem solver the Foundation needs.

During the Leadership Team and Staff Retreat at the end of 2012, when we revisited the Drexler/Sibbet model, our progress was obvious. We had advanced toward the sixth phase, High Performance: “When methods are mastered, a team can flexibly respond to the environment. The team can say, ‘Wow!’ and surpass expectations.” Evidence includes spontaneous interaction, synergy and surpassing results. It is marked by the ability to respond to needs and opportunities in a synchronized and strategic manner.

Marguerite Casey Foundation’s staff members have an unwavering commitment to families and to living our organizational values. This is not by accident. In recent years, we have worked on ensuring that all staff members have a shared understanding of our commitment and values and are positioned to contribute their full selves to the work.

As we enter 2013, a year that is pivotal in our multi-year effort to develop and launch the Equal Voice membership organization, high performance is essential. We need everyone to work in concert with each other and to push themselves and each other to unexpected heights. Our progress is encouraging and energizing and validates our efforts to make our organization strong internally. Our external results depend on it.

Organizations With Small Budgets

The Foundation supports communities and community organizations that differ in many ways. An obvious difference is the range of capacity among our grantees. In rural, under-resourced communities, in particular, we find that many of the active, strong organizations are “small,” which we define as having an annual budget of $500,000 or less. Small organizations are an important part of our grantmaking portfolio because their impact often far exceeds the size of their assets.

Such groups are often borne of community-led actions and leadership and maintain strong ties to the community. They are scrappy and do incredible work with limited resources. Border Action Network (Arizona), Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, and Coalition of African, Arab, Asian, European and Latino Immigrants of Illinois are good examples. While some small organizations will grow with our support, as has Border Action Network, others will never have large budgets because their communities have limited or no access to philanthropic Foundation and individual donor dollars. Not surprisingly, the highest concentrations of our grantees with budgets of $500,000 or less are in the South and Southwest regions, the two regions with the most limited philanthropic base.

Given the potential and track record of small organizations and given the need for their leadership and resources in otherwise isolated communities, we have, since the Foundation’s beginning, invested in a number of organizations that have a budget of $500,000 or less. In our current portfolio, 18.5 percent of grantees (39 total) have a budget of $500,000 or less. The percentage and number of grantees within each region with an annual budget of $500,000 or less are as follows:

  • Midwest: 12.5 percent (3 grantees)
  • National: 2.4 percent (1 grantee)
  • South: 30 percent (18 grantees)
  • Southwest: 26.7 percent (12 grantees)
  • West: 12.2 percent (5 grantees)

When we make grants to organizations with relatively small budgets, we have to be sensitive to the challenges of such grants, which include the limited capacity of small organizations to manage and maximize the grants, the time it takes for organizations to grow and reach their potential, and the risk of tipping over small organizations with too large of an investment.

When small organizations do not have the financial systems or operating capacity to handle a large grant, the grant is made through a fiscal sponsor, which then administers the grant. For example, Southern Echo receives substantial funds for its own operations and administers grants for smaller organizations. The risk to Southern Echo, despite being a larger organization, is that it could become too dependent on Marguerite Casey Foundation.

All of these considerations are weighed when making individual grant recommendations and when reviewing the composition of our grantee portfolios. Given their potential impact, I recommend that we continue to invest in small organizations; given the complexity of the issues with small organizations, I also recommend that organizations with budgets of $500,000 or less make up no more than 20 percent of our grantee portfolio.

Allocation for Pilot Grants

I ask the board to consider allocating $1,000,000 in 2013 out of the approved grantmaking budget to explore approaches, structures and projects that could be replicated and brought to scale in 2014 as the building blocks of the Equal Voice membership organization. ·

Pilots are likely to focus on membership structures, technology, family engagement, policy
campaigns and network development, though we hope our grantees will present ideas and approaches we have not yet surfaced.

If the board approves the allocation, we will develop and circulate a request for proposals and present grant recommendations to the board in May 2013.


  1. What is your assessment of our level of performance?
  2. What are your thoughts about supporting small organizations?
  3. What are your expectations and hopes for Marguerite Casey Foundation in 2013?

Achieving High Performance