Stronger Foundations blog: How do foundations understand their total impact?

With enormous thanks to all involved, I am pleased to launch the second report of ACF’s Stronger Foundations initiative: this time focusing on Impact and Learning. The report looks at the impact foundations have on the world around them – and why listening and learning is essential if foundations want to enhance their impact.

Like me, you may have read reports about impact before – so what’s different about this one? Well, imagine all of a foundation’s impacts – positive and negative - on a weighing scale. On the positive side, foundations often start with the immense weight of their grantees’ work. What if we took this out, for a moment. What is the contribution of the foundation itself? How would we know?

I take it as a given that foundations strive to have a positive impact on the world. But how many can say they are truly deploying all of their resources, to best effect, at any given time, in pursuit of their mission? A foundation’s resources – its toolbox – may include grantmaking, investments, voice, data, people, knowledge, networks, brand, buildings and more. Some of your greatest assets may hold intangible or untapped potential. Your public profile – could you lend your platform to those without one? Your respected research – who would benefit from knowing more about it? Your digitally-savvy team – could they make your processes better or more user-friendly? Not every tool will be deployed or appropriate in every situation. There will be trade-offs. But a stronger foundation is one that weighs its choices carefully.

It is also important to consider the negative impacts, however unintentional, that foundations can have. As our first Stronger Foundations report on diversity, equity and inclusion explored, boards that lack diversity may not be attuned to the full impact of their decisions and processes. But there are other types of negative impacts: an investment portfolio that does not reflect our values; burdensome application or reporting processes; ameliorating symptoms, rather than tackling the causes of the problems we are seeking to address.

One response to this challenge, that is relevant to all of the very different types of foundation in our sector, is the importance of building in learning. A learning organisation is curious about its impact. It seeks evidence, input and feedback. It looks outwards at the ecosystem of which it is a part and asks what its contribution has been, rather than simply claiming the credit for the impact of others.

In developing this report, we have drawn on the insights, experience and expertise of a working group drawn from ACF’s membership, who considered the input of a wide range of thinkers on this issue. We are very grateful for all of their contributions.

We are confident that this report will be relevant for all foundations, including corporate and family foundations, and those with few or no paid staff. The recommendations are built around seven pillars of good practice; we are confident that there will be scope for all foundations to continue developing, learning, and sharing what they’ve learned, along the way.

Beyond the publication of this report, we will seek to engage with our whole membership on this and the other strands of the Stronger Foundations initiative. As we say in the report, this is the start of a conversation, not the final word. But it’s not only about what we say, it is about what we do, and we hope that this report will serve as a practical guide for foundations to develop their learning and impact practice. We would like to hear from you if you have ideas or feedback for us on any aspect of this work – please email engage with us @ACFoundations.

Carol Mack
Chief Executive
Association of Charitable Foundations

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