Interview: Fay Twersky

The philanthropy programme at the Hewlett Foundation is changing. Fay Twersky, director of its Effective Philanthropy Group, tells Caroline Hartnell how and why. She talks about Hewlett’s new emphasis on ‘two-way openness’ and collaboration and the need to create incentives to encourage foundations and grantees to be more open. Finally, she offers her views on ‘emergent philanthropy’ and effective altruism.

Why was the decision made to phase out the Hewlett Foundation’s Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative?
Originally, the Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative came about as a result of research that showed that 70 per cent of giving in the US is from individual donors. The foundation’s goal was to get 10 per cent of that giving moving from organizations that were less effective to programmes and organizations that were highly effective. We realized, however, based on some independent research that we commissioned and an independent third party evaluation, that we were not making progress towards that goal. Individual donors, for a variety of reasons, are highly loyal in their giving and we didn’t see any signs that having more non-profit performance data would change current patterns.

Critics have suggested that rather than being a response to evidence, this decision had as much to do with change of leadership and the fact that Hewlett president Larry Kramer is less interested in ‘effective philanthropy’ than his predecessor, Paul Brest. How do you respond to this?
It’s not true. We tried to be very open about our reasons for closing down the Nonprofit Marketplace programme. We shared the information openly with our grantees; we posted a video on our website to thoroughly explain why we were making this decision. I was the one to lead the analysis and make the recommendation to Larry and to the board. Larry continues to be committed to effective philanthropy, as is shown by the fact that the budget stayed intact for our effective philanthropy grantmaking, and we will continue to make grants to strengthen the field of philanthropy broadly.

Can you talk a little bit about Hewlett’s new strategy to foster openness and transparency and collaboration?
We are in the process of developing a collaborative approach with other funders to foster ‘two way openness’. This means building on traditional notions of transparency where foundations are more open about what we do and how we do it, and also open to hearing from our grantees and from the ultimate intended beneficiaries of our work – students in schools, trainees in vocational education programmes, women in domestic violence shelters – and incorporating their insights into the foundation’s considerations as we develop strategies for grantmaking. So support for systematically listening to beneficiary voice and ultimate constituent feedback loops will be part of our new openness funding effort.

How will you tackle the problem of getting grantees to be more open? Grantees are understandably worried about losing funding if they admit to failures and difficulties?
That is a significant challenge. One of the things that we are doing now at the Hewlett Foundation is to say in our grant agreements that we may evaluate the work and that if we do, then we want to share the results publicly, so that others can learn from what we’ve supported – from what’s worked and what hasn’t. We need to change the norms in our sector to reward sharing of information about what’s not working, rather than punishing it.

In my view, having worked on both sides of the aisle, the most effective non-profits are those that rigorously and systematically evaluate their work and share the results, both the good and the bad, and use that data to improve. So when you’re doing your due diligence as a funder, look for organizations that rigorously and systematically measure their work and share those measures openly and talk about how they’re adjusting course.

I was in a meeting recently where Geoffrey Canada, former head of the Harlem Children’s Zone, told a group of non-profit and foundation executives, ‘don’t be afraid of the data. Don’t fall in love with your programmes; fall in love with your goals and adjust your programmes based on the data.’ I couldn’t agree more: funders can provide funding and incentives for non-profits to report, measure and report on their successes and failures, and non-profits need to step up to that plate and pursue their goals and be willing to adjust their programmes based on data.

In a letter to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, Larry Kramer says that he could ‘envision supporting charity organizations like Charity Navigator, GiveWell, and GuideStar down the road in a future strategy’ (all grantees under the Nonprofit Marketplace Initiative). What sort of strategy might that be?

I think that the point here is that we didn’t pull our funding from those organizations because they were not performing. We changed our strategy because the assumptions on which it was based weren’t fulfilled. As I said, we had a goal of shifting 10 per cent of individual donations from less effective to more effective non-profits, which is related to, but distinct from, those Nonprofit Marketplace grantee organizations’ specific goals and programmes. I think the organizations you mention all do good work and I could imagine that we might continue to support them under another umbrella.

Can you tell me about Hewlett’s knowledge creation and dissemination strategy? Will this programme be continued?
We have also had our knowledge strategy independently evaluated this past year and we were very pleased to get positive results. The idea behind this strategy is to help build the field of philanthropy by supporting the production, distribution and uptake of high-quality knowledge about how to do philanthropy well. Our evaluation showed that our grantees like the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and Stanford Social Innovation Review are producing and disseminating high-quality knowledge.

What we’re still short of is information about the uptake, about how that knowledge is being applied in practice and by whom and with what effect. We’d like to better understand how that happens so we’re going to be spending some of our time and resources in the next few years working with our grantees to collectively measure and get our hands around this question of uptake.

Larry Kramer has talked about a possible innovation fund to explore big data’s potential for the social sector. Is that also part of your knowledge strategy?
Not at this time. There are others who are more focused on big data or digital data more generally. Rather than us playing a leading role in this, we will be following some of the good work that other funders like the Packard Foundation are doing. Lucy Bernholz is leading the charge on the possibilities related to digital data and we’re following that work closely.

In SSIR, John Kania, Mark Kramer and Patty Russell recently wrote that strategic philanthropy isn’t up to the job of tackling complex problems and it’s now going to be replaced by emergent strategic philanthropy. Reading the comments on this, you might conclude that the new emergent philanthropy is no more and no less than common sense and good judgement. What’s your view on this?
Smart  philanthropy always should be flexible and adaptable and some of the proponents – though not all – of strategic philanthropy have run what I call the risk of too much certainty. When you develop theories of change or logic models that are locked down, you can’t adapt on the basis of new information. I do think that’s a problem.

But, let not the abuse of a thing be an argument against its proper use.  In general, effective philanthropy does benefit from thorough analysis of a problem, setting clear goals, some sense of the strategies to be deployed in accomplishing those goals and measuring progress. One of the areas where foundation strategy has fallen down is that it sometimes fails to take account of other voices – both the perspectives of grantees and those of the ultimate intended beneficiaries.  I also think we haven’t done as good a job as we need to in terms of measurement of progress and adjustment.

William Schambra among others argues that ‘emergent’ strategic philanthropy is what should always have been favoured and again pretty well common sense. Is the whole business of coining elaborate theories a bit of a waste of time and money?
I think the key word there is elaborate and what do we mean by elaborate? I think it’s helpful to have some theory going in, a hypothesis about how we’re going to address the problem. You have to have some basis upon which to make decisions about how to make grants.

I like Bill Schambra and think he always has interesting and provocative perspectives to share. We invited him to come and address the Hewlett Foundation staff last year. After he offered a blistering critique, we asked him how he would have us organize our work other than the way that we do, which is through analysis of problems, developing theories of change, making grants, measuring progress, adjusting course. And really he couldn’t answer the question. So I do think it’s sometimes easier to be critical than to be a constructive contributor.

Finally, I’d like to ask you about effective altruism. It seems to me there’s one key difference between strategic philanthropy and effective altruism. In strategic philanthropy, you decide which field you want to work in, and then use your analysis to decide which are the best organizations to support in that field. Effective altruism advocates using the same sort of analysis to decide which causes to support as you would use with organizations. What’s your response to that?
I’m curious to see where the effective altruism movement goes. My own view is that there’s an important role for passion, heart and values in philanthropy and room for giving to all kinds of causes. Sometimes people are passionate about saving lives, other times about bringing music into the world. We wouldn’t want to live in a world without music or art or poetry, or in a world where life-saving services for people depend on what zip code they live in. Personally, I’m passionate about peace in the Middle East. I’m not sure if I could make a rational argument that that is the highest return area to give in, but it seems important to me and if we could achieve it , we’d make a big contribution to the world and its future.

What role would you like to see philanthropy playing in society?
I guess my vision would be for philanthropy to make meaningful contributions in many different areas of our lives and in service of the planet. I’d like us to do that in a way that involves taking smart risks, active learning and adjusting course. I’d also like us to be more open about what we’re doing, how we’re doing it, and what we’re learning so that others can build upon what we’ve done or create new ways to make the world a better place. I’d like to see a little bit less rehashing of the same old lessons and more acceleration to impact.

Fay Twersky is director of the Effective Philanthropy Group at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

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Comments (1)


Without a doubt foundations shulod strive to align their asset management with the values and operations of their philanthropic activities; and where possible, invest in socially responsible companies that have proven to generate good R.O.I.HOWEVER, I can see (from a pure investment strategy perspective), why the Gates Foundation might find this difficult to do.With the amount of assets that they must invest, whilst keeping with their investment policies (in terms of % ownership, liquidity, risk exposure etc), I think it may prove difficult if not impossible for the Gates Foundation in particular to align their investments with activities.In short, until the progressive, socially responsible companies become as big and relatively stable - on a market cap basis - as the leaders of the industrials, I can't see how the largest foundations to do this.This shulod not discourage "the rest of us" in advocating for this kind of alignment but my above point is one I feel being left out of the conversation on this topic.

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