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From the President: Learning from Our Stakeholders

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Nov 05, 2012

Dear Friends,

I described in my last letter some of the institutional planning work underway at the Irvine Foundation this year. Related to that effort, and as part of our continuing commitment to learning from the Foundation’s various stakeholders, we conducted a stakeholder assessment survey to receive feedback about our work. I am using this quarter’s letter to share more about this survey as well as what we learned from it.

In-depth, confidential interviews were conducted by a third-party consultant with more than 60 leaders in our fields of work, the nonprofit community in general, and philanthropy. The interview questions focused on awareness and perceptions of the Irvine Foundation; the perceived impact of our work, broadly and in our program areas; and feedback on direct experience and interactions with the Foundation. We also asked questions about the challenges and opportunities facing California.

Because we intentionally sought the perspectives of stakeholders who know Irvine’s work well, it was no surprise that the general tone of the feedback was both positive and supportive. At the same time, these stakeholders were able to offer substantive and constructive suggestions that will help the Foundation improve our efforts going forward.

I wanted to share with you some of the key themes that emerged from the feedback as well as from subsequent discussions with our board and staff:

  • While stakeholders appreciate Irvine’s commitment to transparency and are aware of the issues we focus on, they are less clear about our strategies and the impact of our work. This suggests that we need to continue improving the way we communicate about our work so people understand our approach, where we see impact and what we are learning.
  • Many stakeholders would like to see Irvine be more strategic in drawing attention to the fields that we fund and to our priority regions of the San Joaquin Valley and Inland Empire.
  • Related to that point, stakeholders suggest that we exercise the Foundation’s voice with greater frequency. This could enhance Irvine’s impact by demonstrating more broadly our commitment to the issues we fund and by communicating our strategies more clearly.
  • One of the central themes that emerged was the need to accept more risk. Irvine’s approach to grantmaking is seen by many as risk-averse, and stakeholders encouraged us to consider strategies that might have greater impact even if they come with greater risk.
  • There is also some inconsistency in the interactions with staff across the Foundation, with some viewing Irvine as supportive and partnership-oriented, while others experience Irvine as rigid and prescriptive. This may be a tension inherent in a focused approach to our grantmaking goals, but we need to remain committed to seeking input and engaging others in advancing these goals.

These themes were particularly timely because they resonate well with some of the topics and ideas that have emerged internally through the planning discussions we are engaged in this year. As we develop recommendations for structural and strategic refinements in 2013 with the goal of increasing impact, we will be attentive to opportunities to improve the clarity of our communications at all levels, experiment with more innovative approaches for greater impact, and ensure a collaborative approach to working with grantee partners and stakeholders.

As always, I welcome your suggestions as well. If any of the observations above prompt your own thoughts, encouragements or critiques, I would urge you to share them with us. I know that our effectiveness as a Foundation is enhanced by our ability to listen, to learn and to adapt. It is in that spirit that we conducted this survey, and it is in that spirit that we invite your ideas as well.

Thank you for your continued interest in the work of the Irvine Foundation.

Sincerely,

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James E. Canales
President and CEO
@jcanales
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Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine Foundation from 2003 to February 2014.

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