What we choose for our work is one of the most important decisions we make. At the highest level, our work is currently organized into four programs — Environmental Conservation, Science, Patient Care and the Bay Area.
We aim to tackle a limited number of important issues at a scale where we can achieve significant impact. We strive to create a foundation that maintains depth, focus and scale of impact and yet remains flexible and innovative so that it remains relevant over time.
We take an outcomes-based approach. We choose important issues and are clear about the results we aim to achieve and the strategies we will pursue. The Four Filters guide our selection of potential funding opportunities that promise to achieve the greatest possible impact.
Measurement, evaluation and learning are part of our DNA. We rely on data and evidence to assess our theories of change and to effectively practice adaptive management. To allow adaptive management to thrive, we encourage institutional curiosity and innovation, value failures and learn from mistakes, and create a safe-fail environment for ourselves and our grantees.
We work through grantees. We pursue outcomes in collaboration with grantees and other stakeholders and hold ourselves accountable for their achievement. Thorny problems — setting strategic priorities, allocating resources, guiding implementation and adaptively managing for results — are at the heart of our work, and we expect our staff to draw on their own expertise to develop a clear point of view. At the same time, we recognize that success relies on the many partners whose ingenuity, skills and talent are necessary for achieving the outcomes we seek.
Organizing our work
Within our focal programs (Environmental Conservation, Science, Patient Care and the Bay Area), our work is implemented mainly through three mechanisms — initiatives, commitments and standalone grants. These mechanisms allow the foundation to achieve outcomes of different sizes and play different roles in design and implementation.
- Initiative: a substantial effort intentionally designed to achieve an outcome and goals through complementary grants with a budget and timeframe approved by the board. Examples of active initiatives include the Andes-Amazon Initiative and Emergent Phenomena in Quantum Systems Initiative.
- Commitment: a pledge to support an institution or consortium of institutions to achieve an outcome and goals adopted by the institution(s) through one or more grants and with a budget and timeframe approved by the board. Examples of commitments include the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing and Caltech.
- Standalone grant: a grant that is not part of an initiative or commitment and is designed to achieve an outcome and satisfy the Four Filters on its own.
In addition to these three mechanisms that are designed to achieve outcomes, we have three ways to organize standalone grants:
- Exploration: a general examination of several new areas for potential future investment, conducted through standalone grantmaking and other activities as a regular part of program development overseen by a chief program officer.
- Investigation: a concerted effort to study and evaluate an area that could eventually become an initiative, with a budget and timeframe approved by the board.
- Standalone portfolio: A set of standalone grants, each achieving its own standalone outcome, that are grouped together by a chief program officer because they are related or complementary in purpose or field, though not to achieve a collective, higher-order outcome.
In the Statement of Founders’ Intent, Gordon and Betty Moore provide a selection framework that we call the Four Filters, by which we choose which problems and opportunities to tackle and how to direct our resources to make an enduring and positive impact in the world.
- Is it important? Successfully addressing the issue will result in large positive benefit or avoidance of substantial negative consequences.
- Can we make an enduring difference? Significant enduring impact can be achieved that would not be achieved without foundation support.
- Is it measurable? To track progress and confirm outcomes, measurement against goals is necessary. It is often difficult to implement, but key to our quantitative approach to philanthropy.
- Does it contribute to a portfolio effect? Synergy can increase impact and a portfolio can decrease risks.
The filters are intended to be applied holistically, rather than sequentially.
Practicing outcomes-based philanthropy
An outcome is a change that occurs in people, institutions and/or conditions. Outcomes are the ultimate desired result of the foundation’s investments and activities. For management and governance purposes, the defined outcome of an initiative, commitment or standalone grant has specific, measurable, achievable, results-oriented and time-bound goals — and we hold ourselves and our grantees accountable for the outcomes we believe we can deliver. Our grantmaking is organized around those measurable outcomes, which may contribute to a more aspirational vision beyond what may be attainable with the foundation’s allocated resources.
The articulation of outcomes for initiatives, commitments or standalone grants may vary by program, particularly with respect to advancing knowledge. For example, in our Environmental Conservation and Patient Care Programs, scientific research may contribute to an outcome, but the new knowledge itself would not be a sufficiently compelling outcome. In our Science Program, by contrast — with its emphasis on advancing basic science — discovery, understanding or explanation can constitute an initiative outcome.
Adaptive management is a systematic and evidence-based approach to project management. It integrates design, management, monitoring and evaluation to provide a framework for testing assumptions, adaptation and learning.
We practice adaptive management because we often work in complex systems in which results are not certain and conditions are constantly and unpredictably changing. We believe that those closest to the work — including our own staff and grantees — must actively engage in adaptive management to improve effectiveness and impact. For adaptive management to thrive in our foundation, we seek to encourage institutional curiosity and innovation and a willingness to be open to change and failure.
Theory of Change
Theories of change are the cornerstone of effective adaptive management. They facilitate the ability to plan, manage and evaluate strategies and interventions. At the initiative, commitment, and standalone grant levels, our goals depend on one or more theories of change, which demonstrate beliefs and assumptions about how strategies will result in the intended change. At the individual grant level, theories of change depict expected results and how these are meant to contribute to higher-order outcomes.
In essence, a theory of change is a summary of evidence-based assumptions logically linked through a series of “if…then” statements. It can be equally relevant to initiatives,
commitments and standalone grants. The complexity of a given theory of change generally matches the complexity of the problem and the solutions we support. Thus, initiative theories of change are generally more complex than commitment and standalone grant theories of change. As with any model, a theory of change is necessarily a simplification of the real world, intended to highlight the essential elements that are expected to contribute to achieving the desired outcome.
In designing and managing an initiative (and the concept can also be applied to commitments and standalone grants) its life cycle comprises four stages: 1) investigate, 2) plan, 3) do, assess, adapt, and 4) secure and exit.
Early in the foundation’s history, Gordon Moore said: “I have a high tolerance for risk, doing things that otherwise wouldn’t get done.” While we have a high tolerance for risk, we also actively mitigate implementation risk. Depending on the endeavor, this may require contending with a wide variety of such risks, including organizational, personnel, reputational, political, financial or technical.
We rely on our partners’ candor about the exogenous factors that may impact our work—pursuing projects we know are risky is far more effective and valuable with candid dialog about success and failure along the way. The wish of our founders as expressed in the Statement of Founders Intent is for the foundation to be emboldened to take on risk commensurate with prospective long-term benefit, to make a significant and positive impact in the world.
Flexible and adaptive
We recognize there is a desirable degree of open-mindedness and adaptation needed in implementing these ideas. We also believe that articulating the common touchstone behind our philanthropy serves as a useful point of reference for our staff and for the many partners whose ingenuity and hard work are critical for achieving the outcomes we seek.