“In its natural form, philantrhopy is full of art and personality, bursting with idiosyncratic visions, unsupported claims, and deeply held passions.”
– From The Essence of Strategic Giving by Peter Frumkin

PFS’ third Lunchtime Learning session on June 12, 2015, addressed many of the issues raised in the above quote. The San Francisco conference room was full, populated with seven foundation trustees from four different foundations, and several PFS staff members.  Amy Freeman, Senior Program Officer, moderated and started off with a brief overview about how foundations can think about strategy. She noted that some foundations are given guidance by the people who created them. However, many founding documents leave room for making the activities of a foundation more specific and targeted, and this becomes an opportunity for a board to create a strategy. Amy also challenged participants to think about the lenses that can be used to examine a giving program: personal, strategic, systemic, upstream, crisis, and capacity building.

Sand Hill and Bella Vista were the two presenting foundations, and each of them had begun with wide-ranging guidelines and later narrowed the focus of their grantmaking in an effort to have more impact.

Susan Ford Dorsey, president of the Sand Hill Foundation, spoke about the work of her late husband, Tom Ford, and how he influenced the local focus of the foundation when they established it together twenty years ago. When executive director Ash McNeely was hired by the trustees in 2007, they began a planning process and the board created a mission statement and identified the values that are most important to the foundation. Susan noted that becoming more strategic is often a slow, incremental process. She had wanted to grow beyond being a purely responsive grantmaker measuring the success of individual grants (by, for instance, including desired outcomes in every grant agreement) to one that was delivering a more coordinated . In 2010, Sand Hill Foundation launched a five-year collaborative with three co-funders and nine organizations focused on an area of particular passion – youth and “out of school time.”  In 2011, the foundation hiredoutside evaluators to examine what effect the collaborative has had, in order to understand its value to the field and to the foundation. The collaborative has been the subject for numerous speaking engagements at national funder conferences, and a catalyst for the exploration of a new funding area related to college completion.  The foundation commissioned a field scan to analyze this new interest area – an up-front investment that quickly helped create a clear and deliberate strategy.  Implementing methodologies like these to increase the impact of the foundation’s grantmaking was, in each case, new for Sand Hill – and proved to be entirely worth the time and money.

Bob Kirkwood, chair of the board of the Bella Vista Foundation, detailed the narrowing of focus in both of the foundation’s program areas in its first five years:  “Environment” became “Ecosystem Restoration” in six watersheds in California and Oregon, and “Youth” became “Infants and Families Connecting (IFP)” in four Bay Area Counties.  Bob and executive director Mary Gregory concentrated on the IFP program area for the sake of brevity, and they talked about the importance of strong attachment between mother (or primary caregiver) and child being a key determinant of school readiness, and how depression can derail healthy attachment.  The foundation focuses on “light touch” programs such as support groups of various kinds that can help prevent anxiety and depression by creating a supportive community.  The foundation has a new Statement of Purpose that explains more about IFP’s goals and activities.   Bella Vista Foundation measures its success in IFP by looking at the changes that happen to the adults in the funded programs, and it also has engaged outside evaluators to look at the aggregate data in one of the four target counties.

A great discussion followed, and if you are interested in learning more, please contact Mary or Ash at Pacific Foundation Services.