Public Crisis and Internal Struggle: The James Irvine Foundation

For James E. Canales, president and CEO of the James Irvine Foundation, helping the foundation become more transparent came out of a combination of public scrutiny following charges of excessive compensation to a recently-departed president, internal challenges after a set of staff reductions the previous year, and his own commitment to openness.

A few months later, in May 2004, an evaluation firm that was hired to assess the foundation’s largest and most expensive initiative to date—an afterschool initiative—issued its first report and gave the initiative low marks. Communities Organizing Resources to Advance Learning (CORAL), Irvine’s $58 million, eight-year after-school initiative, was designed to improve the academic performance of low-income children in low-performing schools. But the evaluation found that most sites offered little educational programming and the program design was fundamentally flawed. With such devastating findings, Canales could have recommended to the board that they quietly shelve the program and move on. The report’s findings could have easily remained in the Irvine program staff’s file cabinet.

Instead, Canales and the board followed up on the evaluators’ recommendations to make changes to the program’s structure. The foundation then documented the entire process through a series of reports that Canales himself helped to publicize, in part through co-authoring an op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy with Paul Brest, the former president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, which had also recently released a similarly critical evaluation report.

Canales, like other foundation leaders, is quick to point out that the foundation did not set out to become more transparent simply for transparency’s sake. Rather, its openness in publishing critical assessments of its work flowed from a value that was becoming central to the foundation. “I think every foundation needs to ask whether they view transparency as something that’s an important and deeply held value to the work of the institution,” Canales says. “At the time [of the first CORAL report], the foundation was the subject of some pretty unflattering exposés. As a result of that, we felt a commitment to try and be more trans- parent about why we were making decisions in certain ways, and I felt that one of the ways that we could make a contribution to the field is to just behave in a more transparent way.”

This transparency not only helps a funder to justify their actions, but it also helps other funders and groups with similar interests in education issues to learn from and improve upon well-intentioned mistakes. By sharing more about its decision-making, Irvine lends important lessons to the broader field.

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