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Multiyear Giving: What We’re Learning From Our Mistake

September 17, 2012

(Steven Lawrence is director of research at the Foundation Center.)

Sal_headshotNo one likes to make mistakes, especially when those mistakes have been presented to the public as fact. Recently, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) released a research brief on the level of foundation support for multiyear grants. The conclusions reached belong to NCRP, and they can defend their interpretations of the data. The problem, however, was that the underlying Foundation Center data from which NCRP drew its conclusions were "incorrect" (i.e., wrong).

Did the Foundation Center miss the boat with respect to capturing data on multiyear commitments? No. For the small number of grantmakers that indicate the duration of their grants, we captured their information correctly. Where we erred was in the programming we used to tally these statistics. A simple programming error caused public embarrassment for two organizations and the need for NCRP to start from scratch with their analysis.

Interestingly, the corrected data show the same direction of change for multiyear support. That is, there was less of it among consistent multiyear funders as a result of the 2008 financial meltdown. But that's beside the point. In an age of ever-greater scrutiny of the work of foundations, we at the Foundation Center did not go far enough to ensure that our numbers, our "facts," were as accurate as the sector expects them to be. We are walking the talk of transparency by acknowledging this error and publicly pledging to do better.

In having to scrutinize these data more closely, we also had the opportunity to think more deeply about multiyear support. The Foundation Center does not have a position on whether there should be more or less of it. That's up to grantmakers to decide based on their individual strategies. But because there is so little information available on grant durations -- roughly 90 percent of the foundations we track each year do not provide specific information about the duration of their grants -- it will continue to be a challenge for foundations on either side of the issue to use knowledge from the field to make decisions about how, when, or whether to award multiyear grants.

The silver lining in this episode for the Foundation Center would be if, by having unintentionally drawn attention to the topic, it ultimately leads more grantmakers to provide comprehensive information on their grant durations.

-- Steven Lawrence

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