On Tuesday evening, the famed cartoonist Milt Gross made an appearance at the Council on Foundations annual conference. In a session called Strategic Philanthropy: Theory and Practice, the speaker Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, flashed on the monitor a cartoon of howling wolves gathered at the edge of a cliff. One of the wolves had taken a break from howling to ask his companions, “My question: Are we making a difference?”

The attendees at this week’s philanthropy summit in Washington D.C. met up to ask themselves the same question. As a blogger, I wasn’t privy to many of the intimate conversations among colleagues and close friends in the foundation world. I didn’t hear the uncertainties that were no doubt expressed in whispered voices between conference sessions and at the gala events. Instead, I heard bold proclamations on what it takes to make a difference: namely, the right combination of vision, leadership, and partnership.

In his presentation about strategic philanthropy, Brest presented an outline of his foundation’s approach to all three points. For vision, Brest said a foundation must first establish a viable theory of change. “If your theories of change are incorrect, your interventions will only be right by accident,” warned Brest.

He had just finished explaining a case study in New York City in which police implemented a program to reduce crime by arresting people for petty offenses. Crime went down, which was the desired effect. During the same time, however, crime also dropped in cities that had not implemented a similar program. In this case, the desired impact may not have been linked to the city’s theory of change. 

Brest went on to discuss the importance of maintaining an “expected return attitude,” in which every effort is made to assess an intervention’s cost and likelihood of success. Doing so permits grantmakers to recognize and mitigate risks; justify large expenditures with the prospect of high returns; and be candid if and when failure sets in. He also emphasized the need for complete “logic models” to explain how change happens and evaluation criteria to measure success along the way.

According to Brest, failure to demonstrate leadership in these respects can result in wasted money, or worse, “unanticipated bad consequences.” In seeking partners, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation looks for grantees and co-funders who share a similar theory of change and demonstrate willingness to candidly assess each program during and following an intervention. Brest’s professionalism commanded respect in the room full of his peers and colleagues. Quiet in his delivery and precise with his words, I was left thinking that calmness is king in vision, leadership, and partnership. 

On the following day, “Teacher of the Year” and bestselling author Ron Clark tore this hypothesis to pieces during his closing plenary of the leadership summit. Clark, who jumps rope “double-dutch” with his middle school students, delivered half of his speech while literally jumping from table to table in the closing plenary ballroom. I have never seen a more hyperactive successful adult.

In an abandoned factory turned state-of-the-art school, Clark has setup a scholastic program that transforms Atlanta’s poorest school children into over achievers. How? By mixing together the same ingredients that Paul Brest documented with Pentagon restraint.

Clark’s school has honed and implemented an accurate theory of change. That is children perform best when their instructors have high expectations, maintain rules, believe in their students’ futures, and serve as living role models of creativity, innovation, and free thinking. Clark has created a partnership with his students, their parents, and school staff by winning them over to this theory. Together, they are reaching unlikely heights of academic achievement and preparing “a new generation for leadership in a globalized world.”

Clark’s description of his school in Atlanta reminded me of a quote I heard earlier in the day. Andrew Gillum, director of the Young Elected Officials Network commented on the electoral success of young people of color, including himself. “We did the impossible, because we didn’t know what was supposed to be impossible.”

At the end of Ron Clark’s Broadway performance renamed a closing plenary, the audience of more than 1,000 grantmakers gave him a standing ovation that extended for minutes. It sounded like wolves howling. They stood up to applaud the fact that at least one among them was making a difference by harnessing the right combination of vision, leadership and partnership.


imagePeter Deitz is a micro-philanthropy consultant and the founder of Social Actions, a website that helps individuals and organizations use social media to plan, implement, and support peer-to-peer social change campaigns so that grassroots solutions to local and global problems can flourish.  He also writes a blog about micro-philanthropy.

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