Testing Our Intentions Against Our Outcomes: And Then, What’s Next?

By Suzanne Skees, Skees Family Foundation

Skees Family Foundation launched in 2004, began grantmaking in 2005, and truly “went public” with a website in 2011. Now, sitting exposed—with our tiny finances, grantee lists, and heartfelt stories posted for all to see—keeps us honest. Our tax returns show we’ve funded some of the most innovative yet practical programs in the U.S., working here and abroad to extend education, jobs, health, and peace. They also show our learning curve shift from throwing dollars at causes to investing in systems change.

Poonam's family jumped from one to three meals a day when she got her new—permanent—job with Upaya Social Ventures, a nonprofit that creates employment for India's ultra-poor women, (c) Upaya Social Ventures

Poonam’s family jumped from one to three meals a day when she got her new—permanent—job with Upaya Social Ventures, a nonprofit that creates employment for India’s ultra-poor women, (c) Upaya Social Ventures

We’ve made some audacious claims on our website:

  • Intention matters;
  • We can make a difference with a microloan, a scholarship, a check, or an hour; and
  • Every small act of care ripples out far beyond what we can see. 

Yet this remains an inequitable world, where our family got a chance at college and paychecks while 100 million global students lack funding for tertiary school and some countries experience as high as 77% unemployment rates.

So this year, we hired a smart, objective, data-digging firm, Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies, to conduct an impact study, to test our intentions against outcomes.

They’ve helped us uncover many internal issues: overly broad mission, unscientific grant process, underused stories, and more. Being the one behind much of our day-to-day work, I embody most of these organizational weaknesses.

But the good news is:

  • We’re deliberately building a team of board members, advisors, and consultants to fill talent gaps and strengthen capacity.
  • Our grantee and storytelling partners have indisputable impact in ending poverty, and the data prove this.

Our grantee partners have taken the $1.4 million we’ve invested in 9 years and used it to reach 49,909,152 clients at an average cost of 2.8 cents per client. More than half (52.4%) of our funds have directly served the poorest of the poor, in the U.S. and around the world. See our annual report for more details.

In 2014, we plan to mobilize our new board to work in unity, modeling how ordinary middle-class folks can “do” philanthropy. We’ll work with our research team to create a scientific system of grantmaking to small nonprofits and social enterprises working to end poverty through self-help. We’ll work closely with a few storytelling partners to dig out their most compelling stories and share them with a broader audience.

And maybe not by next year this time—but someday, we’ll work ourselves completely out of a job.

Visit our “Seeds of Hope” blog in the final weeks of 2013 for more on our impact study and partners’ progress.

Related resources

Exponent Philanthropy’s resources on impact and evaluation

Impact Takes Intentionality

Suzanne SkeesSuzanne Skees works in international development as director of the Skees Family Foundation, which supports innovative self-help programs in the U.S. and 37 developing countries in education, enterprise, health, infrastructure, and peace. Skees studied English literature (Boston College) and world religions (Harvard Divinity School). She travels from schools to slums, prisons to farms, serving as a storyteller for nonprofit workers, social entrepreneurs, and their courageous clients who toil every day to end poverty and create equality. Find her stories on “Seeds of Hope” blog and Huffington Post.