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To: National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy
From: Buddy D. Philpot, Executive Director of the Walton Family Foundation
Date: April 24, 2015
Subject: Response to “Philamplify” Assessment

As executive director of the Walton Family Foundation, I’ve valued the opportunity to learn from and participate in the Philamplify assessment process conducted by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. While we don’t agree with all of the criteria used by NCRP for this assessment, we do agree that philanthropy should measurably improve the lives of individuals and communities.

We are appreciative of the work of our primary NCRP contact, Gita Gulati-Partee, who approached the assessment with professionalism, interest and a shared passion for improving the lives of people who are limited by poverty. Our leadership, especially our board of directors, believes wholeheartedly in learning and continuous improvement. We dedicate significant staff and financial resources to understanding whether our grant-making achieves the desired results and to determining how we can improve.

Grantee Survey

I want to start by highlighting the biggest benefit of this process – a survey of more than 500 foundation grantees. This is the most comprehensive survey of WFF grantees to date. NCRP sent the survey to a total pool of more than 1,167 grantees and received 557 completed responses – a response rate of 48 percent, exceeding the goal of 40 percent. Three key takeaways from the survey include:

  1. Grantees have a strong overall perception of the foundation as an effective partner. Of all respondents, 94 percent found the foundation effective or very effective. Of those who provided a rating (78 percent of those surveyed), 98 percent felt that the foundation was somewhat effective or strongly effective in supporting underserved communities to achieve more equitable outcomes.
  2. A strong majority of WFF grantees agree with the foundation’s efforts to measure the effectiveness of our grant-making. Of those who provided a rating (79 percent and 80 percent of those surveyed, respectively), 93 percent said the outcomes measurement and reporting requirements were appropriate relative to the size of the grant, and 95 percent said the outcomes measurement and reporting requirements were appropriate relative to the size and capacity of their organization. The foundation prioritizes evaluation and learning, but we need to be very sensitive to be sure we are not creating too much of a burden for grantees with our evaluation process. We are constantly working to improve our processes so that we and our grantees can learn.
  3. The survey bubbled up interesting thoughts on how the foundation can further support our grantees. The top five areas cited by grantees where the foundation can make our partnerships more effective were: exposure and connections to other funding sources; networking and convening among grantees; grant cycle/length of grant; relationship with foundation staff; and grant size.

We are reflecting on this feedback and will look for opportunities to improve upon each, where possible. I’ve attached a series of graphs and charts that further illustrate the results of the grantee survey. These results illustrate that while there are always areas for improvement, the relationship we have with our grantees is, on the whole, highly effective as we work together to achieve ambitious goals.

We found other points of learning in the Philamplify assessment. These are as follows.

Positive Findings That Affirm Our Work and Values

We appreciate the positive findings and will look for ways to replicate and share best practices as we continue to learn and improve. We will respond by staying the course or expanding this type of work. Three portions of the assessment stand out.

  1. The assessment recognizes the powerful values that drive the work of the foundation. For example, the report affirms, “The foundation’s commitment to improving the lives of people who are limited by poverty is genuine.” NCRP recognizes our commitment to learning and the value our grantees place on their partnership with the foundation and recommends that the foundation “continue the thoughtful approach to grantee partnership.” The assessment also recommends that the foundation “continue to pay out a generous portion of assets through grantmaking enabling WFF to support a broad range of groups at a high level for the long term.” We agree and remain committed to doing just that. In fact, over the past two decades our annual grant-making has increased more than sevenfold, from $50 million to more than $375 million 2014. We expect our annual grant-making to continue to grow for many years to come.
  2. The assessment praises our freshwater and marine conservation work. It states, “The foundation’s environment program is achieving powerful and lasting results while prioritizing broad grassroots community engagement across an ecosystem of actors.” The assessment goes on to recommend, “A new strategic framework underway for the environment program should continue to place people at the center and fully engage community stakeholders to achieve sustainable environmental, economic and social goals.” We agree, and as we finalize our five-year strategic plan for our environment program, we will take the recommendation to heart and believe it will be reflected in the next iteration of our strategy.
  3. The assessment notes our overarching motivation for K-12 grant-making by stating that WFF believes “improved academic outcomes are the key to better life outcomes.” NCRP quotes Marc Sternberg, our K-12 program director, saying, “Education is the set of work we can support that will most directly end the cycle of poverty and change the trajectory of young people’s lives.” Further, the assessment states that the foundation’s investments in the charter school sector “have created meaningful benefits for individual students and families.”

Feedback We Are Reflecting On

We value constructive feedback and will use it to improve our efforts and adjust our strategy as appropriate. We have identified three areas in which the assessment points to specific questions for the foundation to consider in the short term. They are:

  1. In K-12 education, the assessment recommends WFF should further “prioritize equity, quality and accountability in order to fulfill deeply held Walton family beliefs about the value of academic achievement.” These are actually longstanding tenets of the foundation’s K-12 work, and we agree that the foundation can, as recommended in the assessment, “further leverage its leadership role in the charter school sector as a powerful advocate for accountability for all schools and in efforts to foster more cross-sector collaboration and innovation sharing to the benefit of ALL students.” Our commitment to accountability for all schools, including public charter schools, is not new and is illustrated by our long-standing support for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers, most notably in a recent initiative that seeks to close 900 underperforming charter schools and open more than 2,000 high-performing charter schools.
  2. We appreciate the recommendation that all of our programs further “the foundation’s commitment to ‘empowerment’ by authentically engaging members of communities most affected by the issues it funds so that stakeholders can help determine the most effective strategies and solutions.” In fact, our new K-12 education strategic plan places considerable emphasis on developing and empowering the now formidable grass roots constituency of the school choice movement in the communities we serve.
  3. The assessment recommends that across all programs, we build on already strong grantee relationships and “utilize other strategies to complement grantmaking, such as convening, in order to elevate learning and networking among grantees.” We agree and plan to do more of this as we continue to learn and grow as an organization. Alongside this recommendation, we also agree with the recommendation that we should make what we learn “more transparent and accessible to others.” This is something we have begun to do and expect to do even more going forward. One example is the recent publication in Philanthropy magazine of an article authored by members of our Evaluation Unit. The piece shares with other funders our learning process in the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta Region, particularly how we acknowledged what had not worked and how we adjusted our strategy moving forward. The article is available here.

Clarifications and Suggestions for NCRP

  1. NCRP refers to “best” or “proven” practices, but it isn’t clear how NCRP defines those terms. We suggest they use other terminology to minimize confusion that their suggestions are based on rigorous research if they are not. Without clear explanations of these concepts, NCRP risks charges that it is advancing an agenda, rather than conducting objective assessments of foundations’ performance.
  2. Recommendations would be more valuable and credible if they came from named sources. When NCRP draws conclusions using anonymous sources, it undermines the report’s credibility and makes it impossible for us to understand the context in which these recommendations are made. This ultimately makes the recommendations less useful than NCRP likely wants them to be.
  3. NCRP gave an inaccurate and incomplete assessment of the Delta strategy, in part because the authors failed to take into account the growing consensus that there are no examples of comprehensive change approaches that have resulted in the transformation of entire low-income communities. Further, the assessment overlooks the extensive process we undertook to engage the Delta community in setting our strategy for the next five years. Had the authors incorporated this information, NCRP might have been able to offer a more thorough assessment. As it is, the assessment is off-base. While there are some useful nuggets in it, it could have been more useful if accurate information had been used to make it.
  4. This assessment would have been more valuable if NCRP had a better understanding of our K-12 education theory of change. The foundation seeks to improve K-12 education for all students, especially those living in poverty. To be clear, this entails investments across three sectors – charter, private and traditional public. The foundation aggressively seeks out opportunities to invest in thoughtful leadership to advance school choice that can lead to breaking the cycle of poverty. When we look across the country, we see too many families that have been too poorly served for too long. We also see a charter movement that, while certainly not perfect, possesses the courage and ability to change lives. Without this understanding, any attempt to measure our success in putting that theory into practice cannot hope to deliver an accurate measurement of outcomes and impact.
  5. We are especially concerned that in noting the 2013 and 2015 studies by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, NCRP did not consider important data related to key subgroup gains for students in poverty, Black and Hispanic students, and English Language Learners – the very students we prioritize in our work. This is a serious distortion of the evidence. While there is certainly room for improvement in the charter sector, these studies illustrate that urban charter schools are improving education outcomes for students with the greatest need for high-quality schools.

Overall, I have valued the learning opportunity presented through this process. Much of what we do and how we interact with our grantees was affirmed, and we found several areas where we need to expand our work or improve upon current processes. We believe there are many effective approaches to philanthropy, and ours is just one.

In our more than 20 years of grant-making, we’ve learned that achieving lasting change requires strategic vision, dedicated and talented partners, discipline and patience, and a culture that values learning and seeks continuous improvement.

Thank you for the opportunity to share our perspective on your assessment.

Sincerely,

Buddy D. Philpot

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