President's Corner

Understanding Our Impact and Discovering What We Do Not Know

August 10, 2009

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

Are we building the best possible mechanisms to illuminate what we do not know and where we can do better?

As we approach the 10th anniversary of Marguerite Casey Foundation in 2011, we are focused on understanding the impact we have made on building a movement of low-income families. In recent reports, I have discussed the evolution of the Foundation and our evaluation efforts, both of which are tied to understanding -and maximizing -the Foundation’s impact on families ability to better their future by becoming the architects of policies that improve their lives. We have spent considerable energy documenting our efforts and evaluating the outcomes of our work; yet, Freeman Hrabowski posed a question that made us think about our inquiries anew.

“How do we know what we do not know?” Freeman asked in a meeting during which policies for handling event sponsorships were discussed. The conversation had focused on ensuring that everyone involved with the Foundation is trained on accounting and reporting rules that apply to private Foundations. We cannot comply with such rules unless we know what they are, so we build in mechanisms to ensure we are abreast of the rules and that we comply with them. Such mechanisms are common for accounting and auditing purposes, but Freeman challenged us to apply this thinking to our programmatic work. Are we building the best possible mechanisms to illuminate what we do not know and where we can do better?

After much pondering, I realized that this question arrives at the intersection of our recent discussions about the evolution of the Foundation’s work and how we measure its impact. Our evaluation processes are designed to measure the extent to which:

  • Marguerite Casey Foundation is staying true to its mission, vision and values. Families are engaged and leading a movement for change.
  • Our grantmaking is effective at identifying and networking cornerstone organizations that support a movement for change led by low-income families.
  • Grantees are effective in their efforts to achieve systemic change for and by low-income families.
  • Marguerite Casey Foundation’s non-grantmaking strategies amplify its grantmaking efforts.

When talking about evaluation, I tend to focus on the specific methods we employ: grant closeout reports, external assessments of grantee relationships, the cumulative impact survey of grantees, and Board assessments, among others. Those methods are obviously crucial and provide us with essential information to ensure we are making sound choices and maximizing our impact, but we need more than the right tools- we need a culture of inquiry.

What Freeman’s question led me to think about is the essential role that developing a culture of inquiry plays in allowing the Foundation to get input about what it does not yet know; for it is rigorous and expansive inquiry that reveals gaps in our knowledge and leads us to new ideas. Tools are useful only to the extent they are supported by an organization that digs deeply into the collected data and complements its tools with an environment of asking, listening and acting. In effect, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s commitment to ask, listen and act serves as an important mechanism to ensure that we learn what we do not know. Our 2005 convening of national grantees provides an example of that dynamic.

In 2005, as we set out to refine the purpose and focus of our national grantee portfolio, we held a convening of national grantees to explore their roles in building a movement of low-income families and to ask for their recommendations for our national grantmaking strategies. Two unexpected themes emerged: First, we found that organizations had a difficult time moving beyond their individual agendas; second, we found that organizations operate with different frameworks of success depending on the focus of their work (for example, being able to turn out 2,000 people to a direct action versus developing the leadership of a small cohort of youth).

The conversations revealed something we did not know prior to the convening: To build a national grantee portfolio of organizations that would embrace the goal of building a movement of low-income families, we would have to partner with organizations in a way that would push them to work beyond their own agendas and that would offer an inclusive framework for engaging a variety of Movement Building strategies. That knowledge led us to establish national grantmaking criteria to fund two types of organizations: 1) organizations that build the capacity of local organizations and 2) organizations that make it possible for low-income families to lead a movement. Since early 2006, applying those criteria has created a more refined, effective and responsive national grantee portfolio.

If we are to discover what we do not yet know, we must do it all: We must develop evaluation tools and employ them with consistency; we must analyze the data and dig for deeper meaning; we must solicit feedback and be open to what we hear; we must create opportunities for dialogue and spaces for the unexpected to be voiced; and we must cultivate a culture of collective inquiry among the people who work in and with the Foundation to share and promote our value of being a Learning and Growing organization.

Measuring Marguerite Casey Foundation’s impact is a highly complex task since few precedents exist for evaluating comprehensive, community-based change efforts. Yet, the complexity of our work makes it critical that we remain open to new ideas and new approaches, that we test and update the mechanisms we have in place to evaluate our work and that we constantly ask for input, all of which will illuminate what we do not yet know and how we can do our work better.

Evaluation is most often discussed in quantitative and qualitative terms, in outputs and outcomes, in theories of change and statistical significance; yet, discussing Marguerite Casey Foundation’s impact and evaluation leads me to recall the poem Caminante by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado:

“Caminante, no hay camino;
Se hace el camino al andar.”

“Traveler, there is no road;
The road is made as you travel.”

For Marguerite Casey Foundation, which set out to achieve an incredibly ambitious goal of building a movement of low-income families, there was no road. We have made the road as we traveled. We set forth our vision, we stated the values that would frame our work and we forged our path. It is in the pursuit of this path that we try things, we make progress, we learn about what works, we try more things and we move along the road toward a moment in time when all children and families are thriving. How will we know what we do not know? By continuing on our road, by evaluating our progress, by soliciting input, by making changes, by being open to new ideas and strategies and by pursuing our mission, vision and values with relentless consistency.

At the end of our 10th year, I expect to see tangible measures of what our investments have produced, what they have taught us and what they tell us about the future of Marguerite Casey Foundation and Movement Building. We are focused on ensuring that we collect the right information, and, as always, we request and treasure your guidance as we continue to make this road together.

2009 Grantee Cumulative Impact Survey

In June, Marguerite Casey Foundation conducted its second annual cumulative impact survey of grantees. The survey was sent to 248 grantee organizations, of which 176 completed it, resulting in a 71 percent response rate. A full report on the findings will be presented for the November Board meeting. Because several Board members have asked about the impact of the economy on our grantees and on families in their communities, below is an overview of the most frequent responses to the three open-ended questions about the economy.

What area of your organization’s work has been the most affected by the economic
downturn?

 

What has been the greatest impact of the economic downturn on low-income families
in your community?

 

What do you expect to be the greatest impact of the economic downturn on the work
of your organization in the upcoming fiscal year?

In the face of tremendous pressure from the economic downturn, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s grantees are demonstrating incredible resiliency. Our grantees have sustained support from their communities and funders because they are recognized as the go-to organizations in their communities. In some cases, the economic circumstances have created opportunities for new collaborations and revised strategies. The Foundation’s grantees appear to be doing better than many organizations in the nonprofit sector, yet the economic downturn has had a significant impact on low-income families in their communities. According to our grantees, the impact on families has been the greatest in the critical areas of employment and housing. Clearly, Marguerite Casey Foundation’s approach- core support to cornerstone organizations- is more important than ever to allow the grantees the flexibility and stability they need to meet the needs of families and, in a time of immense challenges, to create new strategies and opportunities.

Council on Foundations

Three of Marguerite Casey Foundation’s Board members played important roles at the Council on Foundations Annual Conference in May 2009. Lynn Walker Huntley was active in the conference planning as a member of the 2009 Annual Conference Task Force, and her profile appears in a book produced for the conference. William Bell helped to present Family Matters, a report commissioned by the Association of Black Foundation Executives that features Dr. David Sanders discussing Black families. America Bracho spoke about foster children at an event coordinated by Hispanics in Philanthropy. Marguerite Casey Foundation was well represented at the conference, and I extend my gratitude to all for their leadership.

Departures

It is with pride and sadness that I announce that Charles Fields accepted a position at the California Endowment as a Senior Program Officer. I hope that you join me in wishing him well in this new endeavor.

Understanding Our Impact and Discovering What We Do Not Know

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