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Foundational Knowledge: Assessment and Learning

BY Kevin Rafter
Kevin Rafter
As Manager of Impact Assessment and Learning, Kevin oversees evaluation efforts
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| Mar 03, 2014

Editor’s Note: Foundational Knowledge is a new and occasional series on News & Insights, providing three bullet points on a topic of interest to Irvine’s partners and grantees.

Assessment and learning are buzzwords that generate excitement and dread in the social sector. Sometimes lumped under the heading of evaluation, assessment and learning simply means the practice of collecting data about the outcomes of our work to understand progress and impact.

Here are some important points I keep in mind about using measurement to help us understand our impact and progress:

  • Aligning your measurement plan to key decisions is important! The most valuable assessment is one that is timed to provide data, analysis and insights at the right time to inform decisions about future grants or a strategic refinement.
  • This is new territory in many parts of the social sector, so don't let perfect be the enemy of the good - work with what's available, and refine as you go.
  • You learn as much from discovering what’s not working in your programs as you do from learning what works well. In this way, it’s always valuable to do an assessment.
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Measuring the Impact of Social Media: What Happens Offline?

BY Joyce Sood
Joyce Sood
As Digital Communications Officer, Joyce Sood leads Irvine's social media and di
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| Feb 14, 2014

Editor’s note: The following post also appears on The Communications Network’s blog.

As we examine the online impact of our social media activities, a question that often comes to mind is: Can we reliably measure whether people's online engagement influences their actions and behavior offline?

During a recent webinar, held as a follow up to a spring 2013 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) conference that began a sector-wide conversation about how to determine the effectiveness of using social media to advance causes and issues, three foundations shared how they’re assessing what they’re learning about their separate online activities.

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Measuring the Impact of Social Media

BY Kevin Rafter
Kevin Rafter
As Manager of Impact Assessment and Learning, Kevin oversees evaluation efforts
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| May 03, 2013
Last week the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation invited a diverse group of foundation staff, evaluation professionals and social media experts to talk about measurement and evaluation of social media. You can get a feel for some of the topics and ideas that were shared by reading the Twitter activity captured by the hashtag #SM_RE. RWJF has also captured and organized the material related to this meeting on its website.

I found the meeting quite productive and helpful for those of us who think about evaluating our communications efforts and putting those evaluations in the context of our broader organizational goals. And although this subject might appear to be a bit too “in the weeds” for those who aren’t engaged in the evaluation of communications efforts, I would like to share some of the more interesting points that came up at the meeting.

A primary goal for the meeting was to identify how best to measure social media indicators for a common set of outcomes identified by the participants. The common outcomes were:

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Maximizing Philanthropic Impact: An Interview with Jim Canales

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Mar 12, 2013
What does the Irvine Foundation learn by regularly gathering feedback from grantees and other constituents? And how do we integrate those lessons into our work?

How does the Foundation think about “risk” in the context of its grantmaking strategies?

What is the proper role of government in social innovation?

In an interview last week on the Social Velocity blog, Irvine President and CEO Jim Canales discussed these and other questions with Social Velocity President Nell Edgington. The interview is one in a series of monthly discussions that Edgington conducts with leaders in the nonprofit sector. The interview is reprinted here:

Nell: One of the four grantmaking principles of the Irvine Foundation is “Invest in Organizations,” meaning that you are committed to providing grants to build nonprofit organizations (evaluation, operating support, infrastructure). This is a pretty radical idea for most foundations. What do you think holds other foundations back from this kind of investment and what will it take to get more of them to embrace the idea of organization building as opposed to just supporting direct programs?

Jim: This question of general operating support versus project support has been an ongoing debate in the nonprofit sector, and I’d like to suggest that we may be creating for ourselves a false dichotomy that may not be helpful. I’d suggest we focus on the end goal, not the means. Let’s start by asking the question: How can we maximize impact toward the shared goals of a foundation and its grantees? By asking the question in that way, we naturally have to explore whether we are investing sufficient resources, in the right ways, so that our grantee can have the impact we both seek.

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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.

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Managing Irvine’s Endowment

BY John Jenks
John Jenks
As Treasurer and Chief Investment Officer, John directs the Foundation’s $1.6 bi
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| Sep 13, 2012

Our ability to achieve our mission depends on a variety of factors, but one of the most fundamental is the performance of Irvine’s investment program, which produces the resources that allow us to make grants. For this reason, we’d like to draw attention to the annual letter from Chief Investment Officer John Jenks that was included in our recently posted 2011 Performance Report. It offers insights into how we manage our $1.6 billion endowment in today’s challenging financial markets and outlines some of the steps Irvine’s investment team is taking to produce a consistent rate of investment return in support of the Foundation’s mission.

Letter from the Chief Investment Officer and Treasurer

2011 was a challenging year for the global economy and most financial markets. Consequently, most private foundation endowments earned less in 2011 than they paid out. Irvine’s investment portfolio performed better than most — our returns were in the top 20 percent — but even that was not good enough to produce returns high enough to cover the Foundation’s target payout of 5.5 percent. I’d like to use this annual letter to describe some of the challenges we faced in 2011 as well as some of the steps Irvine is taking to produce a higher rate of return going forward.

While extremely low interest rates aided many homeowners and the economy in general, they had an adverse effect on many foundations’ long-term investment programs. Returns on the vast majority of fixed-income investments, the safest and most predictable part of typical large investment portfolios, were much less than the payout rates of foundations, and that had the effect of pushing many to invest more in generally riskier investments like equities. Although Irvine largely resisted this move and benefited from that, 2011 showed just how challenging it is — and likely will continue to be — to earn even the IRS minimum required payout of 5 percent, let alone offsetting the effects of inflation.

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2011 Performance Report: Measuring Our Impact

BY Daniel Silverman
Daniel Silverman
A native Californian, Daniel Silverman leads the Foundation’s communications wor
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| Aug 22, 2012

We are pleased to share with you our 2011 Performance Report in a new online format. While it includes many of the features of a traditional foundation annual report, our aim with this publication is to go beyond that approach and give you a deeper look at the Foundation’s progress toward its long-term goals.

This report is based on the Annual Performance Report that we make each year to Irvine’s Board of Directors as a way to measure our impact and hold ourselves accountable. It examines the progress we’re seeing in our core grantmaking programs, as well as other areas that we believe contribute to our impact as an institution. If you’re interested in reading this longer, more detailed document, it is available on our website.

This year we are experimenting with a new online format that we think will prove more inviting and accessible to our readers. At the heart of the report is the Program Impact section, which offers highlights of key developments in each of our three grantmaking programs and Special Initiatives. In the Leadership section, we describe ways we have used Irvine’s voice to enhance the work we’re supporting through grants. And finally, we look at Irvine’s financial and organizational health using a variety of quantitative measures.

This online publication represents the latest evolution in our approach to reporting on our impact. In that sense, it is a work in progress, and we welcome your thoughts and ideas about how to make it better.

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From the President: Planning for the Future

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Jul 30, 2012 1

Dear Friends,

A persistent tension in philanthropic work is balancing a long-term commitment toward key programmatic goals with the need to remain sufficiently agile and adaptable in a rapidly changing environment. In our experience at Irvine, striking the right balance between these two potentially conflicting approaches can ensure we are having the greatest impact with the resources we are privileged to steward.

Eight years ago, when Irvine’s Board of Directors adopted our current grantmaking programs, we agreed that the Foundation needed to be committed to these core programs for the long term, which we defined then as at least a decade. In view of the ambitious nature of the goals in our Arts, California Democracyand Youth programs, we knew that a long-term orientation was essential. At the same time, we believed then — and still do today — that, at some point, reflecting on our progress, taking stock of the changing California landscape and considering the implications would be prudent.

As we plan for 2013 and beyond, Irvine’s board and staff are engaged in this important process. We have resisted characterizing our work as a “strategic planning” process because we are not intending a wholesale shift in priorities and focus, nor do we plan to divert significant attention from our current activities. Indeed, as a result of an institutional commitment to ongoing learning and refinement, each of our programs has undergone thoughtful, strategic reviews in recent years, and we have adapted our strategies accordingly. At the same time, approaching a decade of work in these three areas affords us an opportunity to ensure that Irvine remains responsive in the face of rapidly changing opportunities and challenges in California, all with an eye toward maximizing impact.

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Aspen Institute Roundtable Features Irvine CEO

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

On June 5, the Aspen Institute featured Irvine CEO Jim Canales as part of their Foundation Presidents’ Series of roundtable discussions. The luncheon was hosted by the Aspen Institute’s Program on Philanthropy and Social Innovation, which seeks to maximize the impact of the social sector by encouraging collaboration between grantmakers, nonprofits and social enterprises. The Institute hosted Jim in their Washington office for a discussion with over 40 nonprofit leaders and policy experts. In discussion with the Aspen Institute’s Jane Wales, Jim covered some of the key trends and developments in philanthropy. The discussion covered performance assessment, transparency and developments in Irvine’s grantmaking programs. The full 90-minute discussion can be viewed below.

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2011 Update on Irvine’s Grantmaking to Low-Income and Diverse Communities

BY Anne Vally
Anne Vally
Anne Vally was with The James Irvine Foundation from 2000 to 2013, last serving
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| Jan 27, 2012

How well is Irvine doing in focusing its resources on low-income people and communities of color?

Every year since 2009, we have been collecting information about the economic status and race/ethnicity of the populations that are being served by Irvine’s grants. We have just completed the analysis of our 2011 grantmaking, and it shows that, of $65 million in new grants in 2011, half of these dollars went to organizations that focus exclusively on communities of color, as illustrated by the chart below:

 

grantmaking to diverse communities

 

Note: This chart excludes special opportunity and discretionary grants, memberships, sponsorships and foundation-administered projects.

We now have three years of data about our grantmaking to low-income and diverse communities. These data show that the Foundation has been consistently focusing just over half our grants on low-income people and/or communities of color. However, we also see variations year to year and by program area. Many of these variations are a result of multiyear grants that are awarded in one year but where activity continues for several years into the future.

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2010 Performance Report Marks New Approach to Annual Review

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Jul 01, 2011

2010 Annual Performance ReportOur 2010 Annual Performance Report represents a new approach to our reporting on the work of the Irvine Foundation. While it provides many of the features of our traditional annual report, such as a complete listing of 2010 grants, it aims to improve on that approach by providing more detail and analysis about the Foundation's progress across various dimensions of our work.

This publication is based on a report that we make each year to Irvine's Board of Directors as a way to measure our progress and hold ourselves accountable to our long-term goals. Although we have made that report publicly available in the past, this year we have combined it with our traditional annual report into a single online publication targeted at a broader audience of the Foundation's stakeholders. It includes an introductory video by our President and CEO, Jim Canales.

Our report looks at Irvine's performance in two broad areas that we believe are important to understanding our impact:

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Three Attributes That Are Vital for Effective Philanthropy

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| May 12, 2011
James E. Canales
From the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, May 12, 2011
As I leave a conference marking the 10th anniversary of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), I find myself reflecting on our progress as a field in understanding what exactly constitutes “effective philanthropy.” At the heart of CEP’s approach has been collecting data to learn more about the practices that may contribute to effectiveness. Through various research reports and survey instruments, CEP has helped many foundations, including ours, to understand our work better and, we hope, to make us more effective.

This emphasis on data collection is both commendable and necessary. However, we ought to consider what other attributes, often not grounded in data, may contribute to effective philanthropy. Let me propose three attributes that, while not lending themselves to easy measurement and far more subjective , strike me as vital to the success of any philanthropic enterprise:  listening, synthesizing, and sharing.

Listening: Because of the resources at our disposal, we can meet with just about anyone we’d like to and obtain about any knowledge that is available. This access provides us with a unique platform for learning, but it also requires us to be active and authentic listeners. The power dynamic inherent to philanthropy makes it critical that  we  resist the temptation to talk more than listen, precisely because people will always listen politely to anything we have to say, regardless of its utility.

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2010 Grantee Perception Report Helps Irvine Learn from Feedback

BY Daniel Silverman
Daniel Silverman
A native Californian, Daniel Silverman leads the Foundation’s communications wor
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| Apr 01, 2011
In 2010, as part of our regular process of gathering formal and informal feedback about perceptions of Irvine and our work, we commissioned a Grantee Perception Report (GPR) from the Center for Effective Philanthropy. The GPR provides comparative, anonymous feedback from our grantees, giving us a candid assessment of our work that we might not otherwise receive. We invite you to view the following three-minute audio slide show for a brief overview of what we learned from our grantees and what we are doing about it:

For more about the report, we invite you to read the following:

In addition to sharing these results with you, we are interested in learning from you and benefitting from your reflections and suggestions. Therefore, we have created a way for you to comment on this page. We appreciate any feedback from you and we thank you for your interest in the work of the Irvine Foundation.

 

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From the President: Engaging Our Partners

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Oct 01, 2010
Jim Canales, President & CEO

Dear Friends,

Many ingredients contribute to effective philanthropy, but one of the more important approaches is an authentic commitment to listen and learn from the communities and institutions we support. While we at the Irvine Foundation can certainly do more in this regard — a theme I will turn to later in this letter — I wanted to share some recent activities we have undertaken to demonstrate our ongoing commitment to this approach.

For me, this commitment must start with the governing board. Irvine has built a board that both brings a range of perspectives and experiences to its leadership role and that broadly represents the rich diversity of our state. In addition, for each of the past four years, we have focused one of our quarterly board meetings on opportunities for board members to engage directly with community leaders and to see first hand the work of our partners.

Last year, our board met in Los Angeles, where we explored the challenges and opportunities facing arts organizations in the context of that region’s vibrant arts economy. The previous year we met in Sacramento, where our board heard from our partners in the public policy arena and observed through a site visit the power of the Linked Learning approach to high-school education. And just this year, in early October, we traveled to Fresno, with the goal of deepening the board’s collective understanding of both the challenges and opportunities facing the San Joaquin Valley. This region has been a priority for our funding in recent years based on its rapidly growing population and shifting demographics, a high proportion of low-income residents, and a history of being underserved by traditional philanthropy.

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A Conversation with John Jenks, Irvine’s Chief Investment Officer

BY Alex Barnum
Alex Barnum
Alex Barnum was a Communications Officer at The James Irvine Foundation from 200
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| Oct 01, 2010

Managing a $1.5 billion endowment is not for the faint of heart, particularly during one of the largest market upheavals in recent history. But then John Jenks, Irvine’s treasurer and chief investment officer since 2002, has some experience with outsized challenges.

From 1999 to 2002, John served as chief investment officer for the state of Alaska, guiding a $25 billion investment portfolio that included the state’s public employee and teacher pension funds as well as its general fund. And when he wasn’t managing state assets, he enjoyed braving the notoriously foul weather of the Inland Passage to catch 40-pound salmon.

Since joining Irvine, John has overseen important changes to the Foundation’s investment program. Under his direction, the Foundation has adopted a new, long-term strategic investment plan, significantly diversifying its portfolio and increasing investments in alternative assets.

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The Case for Foundation Performance Assessment

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Apr 27, 2010
From the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, April 26, 2010

Fueled by new technology and a change in mind-set, foundations have become more transparent about their activities and operations in recent years. This has been heartening, given the responsibilities and privileges inherent to our tax status, and the fact that we must work in partnership with many constituents and stakeholders in order to achieve our goals.

Just recently, there has been a major contribution in this regard by the Foundation Center’s Glass Pockets website, which provides a look at best practices in foundation transparency and which encourages the field to move further in this direction. The number of foundations and array of practices reflected on that site is impressive, and Irvine’s work on performance assessment, the subject of these blog posts, has sought to contribute to this movement. 

In the first three posts of this series I described why we developed a performance assessment framework, outlined some of the challenges we’ve encountered in assessing Irvine’s performance, and shared feedback from our board, the primary audience for the Annual Performance Report. In this final post I want to argue that robust performance assessment activities — and the transparency they encourage — serve to make philanthropy more effective.

View the full blog post.

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Our Board’s Perspective on Performance Reporting

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Apr 23, 2010
From the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, April 22, 2010

In an earlier post on this blog, I pointed out that the audience for the Annual Performance Report (.pdf)is Irvine’s board of directors. As we delivered the fourth of these at our annual board retreat last month, we devoted some time to learning more about the board’s perspectives on the report.

There were two key themes that emerged, related to the value of context, and the appropriate frequency of the report. Regarding context, board members expressed in numerous ways how much they value the contextual information that the report provides.  Two sections stood out in this regard: first, a table that describes how Irvine’s funding compares to other funders in our program areas, and second, a section on program context indicators, where we provide broader indicators related to our programs, such as per capita public spending for the arts across the U.S. or data on high school drop-out rates in California. This latter section is not meant to suggest that our work will necessarily affect those numbers, but rather to expose the board to broader data sets that help contextualize our program work. 

The positive reaction to these sections of the report underscores for me how important it is to help our boards gain a deeper understanding of the environment for the Foundation’s activities. We can explain our goals and strategies and describe grants aligned with them, but there will always be a missing piece if the board is not able to contextualize our foundation’s work. The board’s feedback encourages us not only to consider other ways to use the report to provide such context, but also to explore how we can shape other board materials and meetings in ways that expose them to the broader environment for our work.

View the full blog post.

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Assessing Foundation Performance

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Apr 16, 2010
From the Center for Effective Philanthropy blog, April 15, 2010

At last year’s CEP conference in Los Angeles, I presented (.pdf) on the Irvine Foundation’s approach to assessing foundation performance, joined by David Colby from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I think it’s fair to say that David and I were presenting approaches used by our respective foundations that remain works in progress – Irvine’s even more so than RWJF’s given its focus on this area for many more years.

In view of the interest in this topic at the conference, and my own desire to share what we are doing at Irvine in an effort to improve upon it, I appreciate the opportunity offered by CEP to write a series of blog posts on the subject of assessing foundation performance.

 I plan to do this in four parts, addressing the following topics:

  1. Why we developed an approach to foundation performance at Irvine
  2. What we have found particularly challenging about assessing foundation performance
  3. How our board has engaged with us on this subject
  4. Why assessing foundation performance is both important and necessary

In reflecting upon Irvine’s experiences, I hope to stimulate readers’ contributions to deepening our collective understanding of this important subject and to improving our efforts to measure and understand our performance as foundations.

View Jim's 2009 presentation on assessing foundation performance.

View the full blog post.

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From the President: Assessing Our Performance

BY Jim Canales
Jim Canales
Jim Canales served as President and Chief Executive Officer of The James Irvine
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| Apr 01, 2010

At Irvine and many other foundations, a key question that occupies our collective attention is: What impact are we having?

Arriving at a satisfying answer to that question is complicated by numerous factors. First, as philanthropic entities, most of what we “accomplish” is through others. Second, many of us focus on ambitious, long-term goals that can be difficult to measure and challenging to quantify. And third, it is rare that our institutions and resources alone are responsible for a particular success, so there are always questions of attribution. There are certainly other obstacles, but none of this should absolve us from a good faith effort to answer the question.

As one way to think about this, we developed a framework at Irvine five years ago by which we could measure our progress in a variety of areas we determined were important to understanding our impact. Although the central focus of this assessment framework relates to the outcomes of our grantmaking, we also include areas beyond our programmatic work that we believe contribute to our progress.

Based on this framework, we have prepared reports to our board each year and later posted those reports on our website. And, in conjunction with this letter, we are now sharing publicly our report for 2009, which we presented to our board at its annual retreat in March. The 2009 Annual Performance Report describes the Foundation’s activities across six areas, three related to our program impact and three related to our effectiveness as an institution.

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Survey Says: The Foundation Hears From Grantees and Grantseekers

BY Daniel Silverman
Daniel Silverman
A native Californian, Daniel Silverman leads the Foundation’s communications wor
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| Jan 22, 2003

The Irvine Foundation is seen as responsive and has helpful staff, but it needs to encourage more constructive criticism of its programs, make its selection criteria more transparent and connect its partners to more resources, according to a recent survey of organizations that have received or sought grants from the Foundation.

The survey was done as part of a "customer feedback" project the Foundation conducted in the Fall of 2001. Two groups of customers were targeted: active grantees and grantseekers who were denied funding. After shifting its approach in 1996 to making fewer, larger and longer-term grants and to developing more interactive partnerships with grantees, the Foundation wanted to test in particular how it was doing in developing those partnerships. A similar survey was done in 1998.

"We did the project because we wanted to get a reality check on how we're doing with two important customer groups," says Marty Campbell, Irvine's Director of Evaluation. "We were happy to hear that our customers view us as responsive, and more so than they did back in 1998. And we heard, loud and clear, that we need to be more transparent about our grantmaking decisions and clearer in our guidelines."

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