The performance of major U.S. foundations is much discussed and debated. It is also very difficult to gauge. The past decade or so has seen increased interest and effort related to the question of how foundations are doing, and how they might do better. These questions are not new. The earliest major American philanthropists were interested in answering them. But recent years have seen an uptick in at least the discussion of these issues.
Indeed, our organization, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) has focused much energy on this issue, and we have noted how uniquely challenging assessing foundation performance can be. Among the challenges are the difficulty of drawing a causal link between what a foundation funds and change on the ground, the extended time horizons associated with making progress on the difficult issues foundations often address, and the fact that information from different program areas cannot be easily aggregated using some common measure. There is no universal measure -- no easy analog to return on investment -- for foundations.
So what conclusion do foundation leaders draw about their success? Brest and others suggest that, "philanthropy remains an underperformer in achieving social outcomes."6 Do foundation CEOs agree? How much progress do they believe foundations have made?
In January 2013, we sent surveys to 472 full-time CEOs leading U.S.-based foundations that give at least $5 million annually in grants; 211 CEOs completed the survey for a 45 percent response rate. The survey was designed to collect data on CEOs' understanding of progress and their attitudes and practices in relation to foundation impact. This research was not meant to serve as an objective evaluation of how much progress foundations have made through their work.