CAF America Symposium offers much-needed professional development for global grantmakers

 

John Harvey

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CAF America made an important entry into the arena of professional development for US-based global grantmakers last week, convening its first International Grantmaking Symposium in Washington DC. Just over 20 people participated as learners, with diverse affiliations including corporations, corporate foundations, private foundations, and grantmaking public charities.

At the symposium, CAF America demonstrated particular strength in professional development on regulatory and tax compliance issues in US-based grantmaking: equivalency determination (ED) and expenditure responsibility (ER) as well as OFAC, anti-terror, and related compliance. This topic took up the bulk of time on the first day of the conference. Where these topics are concerned, I have never witnessed a more thorough and intensive training. Given CAF America’s extensive experience in ED and ER, this strength should come as no surprise.

Day two of the symposium focused largely on evaluation. For this content, CAF America relied primarily on its symposium convening partner, the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Dr Raul Roman discussed three common biases that impede successful evaluation: an obsession with numbers and quantitative data, no matter the topic of review (Dr Roman called this obsession ‘insane’); a failure to review and evaluate HOW a programme is implemented, instead focusing only on a programme’s impact; and what Dr Roman refers to as the ‘Oscar Night Syndrome’, a desire to use evaluation to look fabulous instead of to learn.

Dr Roman also touched on the tensions – misunderstandings, lack of common language, fear – between social sector researchers and practitioners. He recommended that we lower our expectations for what evaluation can really teach us, and he called on practitioners to raise their ethical standards with regard to evaluation, moving away from ‘extractive’ research that benefits only foundations and think tanks to evaluation that truly benefits the communities who actually provided the data.

Paula Fabiani of IDIS presented on both days of the conference, offering interesting presentations on the development of philanthropy and civil society in Brazil and how IDIS is supporting its members to strengthen their evaluation practice. According to Ms Fabiani, Brazilian philanthropy faces a number of challenges: a need to move away from welfare to more transformational activities, a lack of professionalism within the sector, little regard for transparency, little focus on measuring impact, and a poor regulatory regime for giving.

The remainder of the symposium programme provided context on enabling greater effectiveness and impact, with a keynote address from Dr Tomica Tilleman of New America and a panel on philanthropic engagement with the Sustainable Development Goals, led by Heather Grady of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

Overall, I found this conference to be a good first go for CAF America, with some strong content and room for improvement. But it wasn’t entirely clear to me who the intended audience was: day one, given the focus on compliance, seemed best intended for grants managers, while day two, focused on evaluation, seemed best intended for programme staff. On each day, sessions fell under three headings: inspiration, education, and application. The actual sessions themselves, especially where inspiration was concerned, didn’t always deliver on the promise. With the Nepal earthquake on everyone’s mind, I would have liked to see some attention given to a grantmaker’s response, or at least some of the content contextualized better to this urgent situation.

Given this successful start, CAF America anticipates convening the symposium in the future, perhaps as often as twice a year. In truth, the space for professional development on US-based global grantmaking practice is fairly wide open right now. The Council on Foundations no longer offers formal professional development on the topic. When Grantmakers Without Borders (Gw/oB) merged with the Funders Network on Transforming the Global Economy (FNTG) to form the EDGE Funders Alliance, Gw/oB’s very strong interest in global grantmaking practice took a backseat to FNTG’s focus on economic justice. The time is opportune, then, for CAF America to try to fill the current void in professional development for US-based global grantmakers.

John Harvey is an independent global philanthropy professional.


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