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Celebrating 15 Years of Knowledge Building for Transformation

Inside The Foundation Review, Volume 16, Issue 1
Celebrating 15 Years of Knowledge Building for Transformation

Welcome to the first of two special issues commemorating the 15th anniversary of The Foundation Review! On this occasion, I must begin by expressing profound gratitude to the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Dr. Teresa Behrens, The Foundation Review’s founding editor-in-chief. Dr. Behrens saw a clear need to make good, evidence-based research on philanthropy accessible to people working in the field who could use this knowledge to transform funder practice. Through her persistence and the Johnson Center’s vision, The Foundation Review was launched in 2009, with early funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

The Foundation Review was founded at a time of economic upheaval that accelerated an awakening of philanthropy’s power to positively impact society. During the journal’s first 15 years, we witnessed philanthropy evolving to meet the challenges of the time. As reported by the Johnson Center, this period saw growth in the patterns of giving, nonprofit sector, and philanthropy-serving organizations, and growing demand for greater trust and accountability in philanthropy (Moody, 2022). The University of Southern California’s Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy’s analysis captured similar themes in its 20-year look back (Ferris, 2021).

As these trends unfolded, authors’ writing for The Foundation Review generated an enduring collection of almost 300 articles. Of the 59 issues in which these articles appeared, 25 were themed and featured in-depth analyses of innovations and trends in philanthropy. For example,

Celebrating the Most Popular Articles

The Foundation Review has served as a platform for authors to share expertise and insights and contribute to the collective knowledge base in philanthropy. To date, articles have been downloaded nearly 600,000 times by readers from more than 14,000 institutions around the world. Authors representing more than 450 universities, foundations, nonprofit organizations, consulting and research firms, and public organizations and institutions have contributed to the journal.

The two 15th anniversary issues of The Foundation Review commemorate the contributions of not only our authors, but also of more than 400 editorial advisory board members, reviewers, and funders. This first special issue presents the most well-received articles in the journal’s history, each with author commentary contained in newly written prologues, introductory videos, and audio recordings. These articles gained traction when they were originally published and continue to resonate today because they share provocative, relevant insights that foster discussions and influence philanthropic practices. All of them, in my estimation, provoke opportunities to continue to address the issues facing philanthropy today.

Looking to the Future of Philanthropy – Reflections from the Author Roundtable

Early in 2024, The Foundation Review hosted the first-ever author roundtable. We invited the distinguished authors of this special issue of The Foundation Review to reflect on why their articles have continued to be read and cited, why the topics and issues explored in their articles matter, and what key trends and issues philanthropy needs to address going forward. We invite you to view a collection of anniversary videos created for the celebration which highlight these key themes raised by our authors:

  • Philanthropy needs better strategy, more capacity, and more collaboration to address the “polycrises” of today and tomorrow. Philanthropy is not adapting quickly enough to a world that is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous, and rapidly changing.

  • Foundations need to engage in authentic and effective networking and organizing practices in order to advance change. Foundation leaders promote the idea of collaboration and aligned action but rarely engage with the same intentionality within their own foundation roles.

  • At the heart of all the change and transformation that philanthropy is trying to achieve are PEOPLE — the human capital component of our theories of change and our intended impact. We are not investing enough in the people who need to lean into the riskier change needed to advance and achieve impact.

  • Foundations should better leverage the investment opportunities and market forces that could support and catalyze change and they should strive to create additional long-term and sustainable finance for nonprofits and change organizations.


This journal would not exist without the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, where The Foundation Review was incubated, nurtured, and made to flourish. Particularly under the executive leadership of Dr. Lesley D. Slavitt, and long-serving associate editor, Pat Robinson, who, along with Dr. Behrens, nurtured the journal. Nor would it exist without the authors, reviewers, and funders who saw the value of such a journal to philanthropic knowledge and practice.

Personally and professionally, I owe a great deal to The Foundation Review. As an evaluation consultant, contributing author, reviewer, and foundation chief learning officer, I always found The Foundation Review to be fertile ground for my learning, professional development, and practice. The contributing authors and reviewers have been my teachers, coaches, and colleagues. They have been generous in sharing their inspiration, wisdom, deep experience, and key takeaways. This issue is dedicated to them for making sure that results, tools, reflective practice, and sector knowledge become fodder for learning and reflection to shape future generations of grantmakers. I invite our readers, to whom this work is dedicated, to celebrate with us and revisit, or discover anew, all that The Foundation Review has to offer.

Headshot: Hanh Cao Yu

Signature: Hanh Cao Yu

Hanh Cao Yu, Ph.D.
Editor in Chief of Special Issues
The Foundation Review


Explore the Full Issue


Inside Vol. 16 Issue 1:

Four Network Principles for Collaboration Success (2013) – With 2024 Prologue
Jane Wei-Skillern, Ph.D., and Nora Silver, Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley

This article, originally published in 2013, identifies a set of four counterintuitive principles that are critical to collaboration success and offers insights into how nonprofit leaders can ensure that their collaborations can have an impact that is dramatically greater than the sum of the individual parts. A decade of research developing detailed case studies on a range of successful networks revealed to the authors a common pattern of factors that are essential to effective networking. The principles are to focus on mission before organization; manage through trust, not control; promote others, not yourself; and build constellations, not stars.

In the 2024 prologue, Wei-Skillern notes that there is now more interest in and need for this approach than ever, and there is still much work to be done. Funders can make a difference by modeling a different way of leading — building up community and the individuals within that community at all levels, not just investing in those who hold formal leadership positions.

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Raising the Bar — Integrating Cultural Competence and Equity: Equitable Evaluation (2014) – With 2024 Prologue
Jara Dean-Coffey, M.P.H., and Jill Casey, B.S., jdcPARTNERSHIPS; and Leon D. Caldwell, Ph.D., Equal Measure

This article was originally published in 2014 — a time when equity was not as frequently evoked as it is now. Social justice and human rights are part of the mission of many philanthropies. Evaluation produced, sponsored, or consumed by these philanthropies that does not consider the imperatives of cultural competency may be inconsistent with their missions. The American Evaluation Association’s Statement on Cultural Competence provides those who produce, sponsor, and use evaluation an opportunity to examine and align their practices and policies within a context of racial and cultural equity and inclusion. This article seeks to open a discussion of how philanthropy can use an equitable-evaluation approach to apply the principles of the AEA statement, present the concept of equitable evaluation alongside an approach for building equitable-evaluation capacity, and apply equitable-evaluation capacity building to philanthropy.

In the 2024 prologue, Dean-Coffey describes how the research that led to this article stemmed from a foundation wanting to know how others were addressing equity — racial equity in particular — in their evaluation approach. A deeper curiosity led to the Equitable Evaluation Framework™️ Framing Paper and “What’s Race Got to Do With It? Equity and Philanthropic Practice.” Both informed the purpose of the Equitable Evaluation Initiative, which is to seed a field of EEF practitioners who advance equity; expand notions of objectivity, rigor, and validity; and embrace complexity.

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Lost Causal: Debunking Myths About Causal Analysis in Philanthropy (2022) – With 2024 Prologue
Jewlya Lynn, Ph.D., PolicySolve; Sarah Stachowiak, M.P.A., ORS Impact; and Julia Coffman, M.S., Center for Evaluation Innovation

This 2022 article explores how and why philanthropy has largely rejected the rigorous examination of cause-and-effect relationships in social change strategies. It outlines the myths that, the authors argue, stood in the way of this practice and calls for increased causal analysis in the sector and the use of new ways for doing it, particularly for strategies rooted in complex systems.

In the 2024 prologue, the authors describe how they launched Causal Pathways, a collaborative field-building initiative that is responding to the demand for more learning and practice on this topic. They identify two new myths about why more causal analysis is not happening: Evaluations are already causal and there is nothing that needs to change, and causality is not important in evaluations. The authors also encountered practical barriers to applying causal approaches. Funders and evaluators need in-depth and real-life opportunities to try and learn causal approaches.

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Internal Culture, External Impact: How a Changemaking Culture Positions Foundations to Achieve Transformational Change (2016) – With 2024 Prologue
Amy Celep, M.B.A., Community Wealth Partners; Sara Brenner, M.B.A., Jewish Community Foundation of Greater Washington; and Rachel Mosher-Williams, M.P.A., RMW Consulting Group

Authors of this article, originally published in 2016, argue that a foundation’s internal culture is critical to achieving large-scale social change, but that efforts to build a changemaking culture too often are left out of strategy conversations. While there is no one culture that suits every foundation, a particular set of characteristics must be present in those that seek large-scale social change: a focus on outcomes, transparency, authenticity, collaboration, racial equity and inclusion, continuous learning, and openness to risk. This article offers insights into why culture can be challenging for foundations to address and maintain, examines cases of successful culture change at foundations, and offers advice for foundations that aspire to it.

In the 2024 prologue, the authors note that philanthropy has evolved in some important ways since the article was written. One significant change has been an increase in the number of foundations that are shifting priorities and practices to center racial equity — this out of recognition that race is the biggest indicator of disparities on a range of social issues in the United States. For foundations working to build a culture centered on equity and inclusion, the authors offer three recommendations: be intentional with language, prioritize relationships and listening, and pay attention to power.

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Donor-Advised Funds and Impact Investing: A Practitioner’s View (2022) – With 2024 Prologue
Sam Marks, M.P.P., FJC-A Foundation of Philanthropic Funds

In this 2022 article, the author argues that any discussion of foundations embracing impact investing must include some discussion of one of the largest — and growing — sources of philanthropic capital: donor-advised funds. These philanthropic accounts allow donors of all sizes to access many of the functions of a private foundation, including the potential to invest for impact. Sponsors of these funds, however, face unique challenges in catalyzing impact investments. Like the larger institutional foundations that have led the way as mission investors, sponsors must often educate and inspire governance boards and investment committees. Unlike foundations with professional program staff, sponsors of donor-advised funds are guided by multiple account holders — often numbering in the hundreds or thousands — in making decisions regarding philanthropic resources. This article takes a practitioner’s view on the issue, reflecting on lessons learned by a sponsor of donor-advised funds that has long accommodated the impact investing interests of its donors.

In the 2024 prologue, the author notes that the process of writing the article helped him to reflect on FJC’s own practices and put them into the context of where the field of philanthropy — and donor-advised funds in particular — is going. Accelerating impact investing means changing minds and attitudes about how we weigh risk, return, and impact, and centering nonprofits’ business needs.

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Emergent Learning: A Framework for Whole-System Strategy, Learning, and Adaptation (2016) – With 2024 Prologue
Marilyn J. Darling, M.A., Jillaine S. Smith, B.A., and James E. M. Stiles, Ed.D., Emergent Learning Community Project; Heidi Sparkes Guber, M.P.S.

The original article, published in 2016, describes Emergent Learning as a “framework.” In the 2024 prologue, the author argues that it is more a way of thinking and being in any situation — and the form it takes can look different from situation to situation. Emergent Learning is about understanding the difference between an adaptive strategy and an emergent one — what it takes to create a whole that is greater and more sustainable than the sum of its parts. Since 2016, the community of Emergent Learning practitioners has grown seven-fold and is bringing what they are doing, seeing, and learning back to the community. Over 60 community members recently came together to write a Guide to the Principles of Emergent Learning — a material example of what can happen when these ideas are brought to life. How and when their practices do or don’t result in emergence, “What does it take?” is always their first question.

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Goal-Free Evaluation: An Orientation for Foundations’ Evaluations (2014) – Revised 2024
Brandon W. Youker, Ph.D., Western Michigan University; and Allyssa Ballard, L.M.S.W., M.P.A., Suppression Expression Counseling

The original article, published in 2014, introduced goal-free evaluation to the philanthropic community. A model in which official or stated program goals and objectives are unknown by the evaluator, goal-free evaluation serves as a counter to assessing impact solely according to goal achievement. Foundation-supported program evaluation, however, has historically focused on goal attainment as intuitively and inextricably linked to evaluation — a focus that has persisted despite the fact that goal-free product evaluations have been a norm for more than 75 years. The purpose of this article is not to advocate for the use of GFE per se, but rather to introduce it to the philanthropic community, present the facts of GFE use in program evaluation, and describe aspects of GFE methodology. These — along with sharing such potential benefits — demonstrate that goal-free evaluation is a perspective that belongs in a grantmaker’s toolbox.

Since 2014, the authors note, there have been advances in GFE worthy of recognition. In this 2024 revised article, they briefly introduce and differentiate between the two types of GFE — intentional and goal-dismissive — and demonstrate that an intentional GFE can be fully goal-free throughout an evaluation or partially so when it becomes goal-based at some point in the evaluation. In their conclusion, the authors argue that the recent trend toward trust-based philanthropy creates opportunities for foundations and nonprofits to consider pursuing goal-free evaluation.

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A Foundation’s Theory of Philanthropy: What It Is, What It Provides, How to Do It (2015) – With 2024 Prologue
Michael Quinn Patton, Ph.D., Utilization-Focused Evaluation; Nathaniel Foote, J.D., M.B.A., TruePoint; and James Radner, M.Phil., University of Toronto

In the 2015 original article, the authors argue that philanthropic endeavors should be undergirded by a theory of philanthropy that describes and explains how and why a particular foundation engages in philanthropy, and they provide details about how to conceptualize a theory of philanthropy.

In the 2024 prologue, Patton describes how different kinds of initiatives need different theory–practice frameworks. A theory of change hypothesizes how a specific intervention (grant, project, or program) is expected to achieve desired impacts. A theory of philanthropy, in contrast, articulates a foundation’s role in supporting specific kinds of theories of change.

The theory of philanthropy framework led to two further theory–practice differentiations: a theory of philanthropic alliance, which explains and hypothesizes how several foundations working together can have greater collective impact than they could working separately, and distinguishing a theory of transformation from a theory of change. A theory of transformation incorporates and integrates multiple theories of change with diverse change agents operating at many levels that, knitted together, explain how major systems transformation can occur. What these various approaches to theory conceptualization have in common is a willingness to engage in serious and deep intellectual analysis of how change occurs, doing so to inform strategy and practice.

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The Soft Stuff Doesn’t Have to Be Hard: Foundation Investments in Grantee Workers Are Necessary, Valuable, and Measurable (2022) – With 2024 Prologue
Rusty M. Stahl, M.A., Fund the People

In the 2022 original article, the author argues that there is an urgent need for funder investments in the ability of grantee nonprofit organizations to support their staff. Such investments, when done well, can yield significant value for individuals, organizations, and fields of work or movements. Furthermore, the value of these investments can be evaluated and communicated. This article explores the reasons for and implications of the inadequate response by funders, offers a path forward for designing investments in grantee staff, and documents how funders can capture and communicate the value of these “talent investments.” Powerful myths serve as barriers to widespread funder investment in grantee staff, and the resulting environment is significantly harmful to wellness, morale, productivity, and equity for organizations and professionals in the social sector. One of these myths that has gone unchallenged is the assumption that it is impossible to assess how investments in grantee staff lead to greater social impact.

In the 2024 prologue, the author notes that the mission of Fund the People is to maximize investment in this country’s nonprofit workforce. That will mean building a new way for funders to think about how they make change. Grantmakers often start by thinking about results. The author argues that they need to start further back in the process and support people to do their best work. This means addressing issues of pay, benefits, organizational culture, wellness, personnel policies, human resources infrastructure, and equity and inclusion. Funders are waking up to endemic burnout in the nonprofit sector. The overhead myth remains entrenched, but change is beginning to take hold.

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Passing in the Dark: Making Visible Philanthropy’s Hidden and Conflicting Mental Models for Systems Change (2024)
Jewlya Lynn, Ph.D., PolicySolve; and Julia Coffman, M.S., Center for Evaluation Innovation

In this new 2024 article, the authors argue that while the need for philanthropy to focus on systems change as a way to scale and sustain impact is now widely accepted, the sector largely fails to recognize that there are different mental models for how to change systems. Sometimes the approaches foundations use are based on competing mental models or models that are not a good fit for the systems, problems, strategies, or practices they are using. The authors describe two mental models for systems change being used in philanthropy: systems dynamics and systems emergence. Strategies that use the systems-dynamics mental model aim at points of high leverage in a system and predict the kinds of changes that will occur. Strategies that use the systems-emergence mental model look for parts of the system that are under-resourced and experiment with ways to disrupt or reinforce them. This article explores these two mental models, provides examples of foundation strategies that use each approach, and offers tools for aligning mental models with philanthropic practice.

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Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results (2015)
Book review by Hilda Vega, M.A., Hispanics in Philanthropy

This book review notes that in the past decade or so, systems thinking has increasingly made inroads into the nonprofit sector as a more holistic approach to complex social challenges. Vega highlights that one of the most important messages in David Peter Stroh’s Systems Thinking for Social Change is that in our efforts to do good, we often get so caught up in the immediacy of finding a solution that we misunderstand or put off the need for long-lasting systemic and structural change. The reviewer says that at times, Stroh rightly points out, our short-term choices can undermine our goals. Using examples, Stroh details the structure of systems thinking and how the set of tools offered by causal loop diagrams can be useful in understanding systems. For Stroh, this approach helps stakeholders see the big picture — the one we often forget to look for — and our role in it.

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Ferris, J. M. (2021, March). A generation of impact: The evolution of philanthropy over the past 25 years. The Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy at Sol Price School of Public Policy, University of Southern California.

Moody, M. (2022). Philanthropy 1992–2022: What difference can 30 years make? Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.–2022-1.pdf

Smeeding, T. (2012, October). Income, wealth, and debt and the Great Recession. Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.