by: Richard Margoluis

We live in a world that seems to grow ever more complicated and complex with each passing day, where social and environmental problems seem so daunting and overwhelming that we often feel we don’t even know where to start — or so big that it seems fruitless to start in the first place.

Undeterred, and in fact spurred to action precisely because they believe seemingly intractable problems can be solved finding the right leverage points, Gordon and Betty Moore established their namesake foundation in 2000. In their Statement of Founders’ Intent, they write:

“We want the foundation to tackle large, important issues at a scale where it can achieve significant and measurable impacts. The foundation’s ability to take risks and make long-term and relatively large commitments should allow it to undertake challenges not accessible to many other organizations. We seek durable change, not simply delaying consequences for a short time. [We] believe that science and the type of rigorous inquiry that guides science are keys to achieving the outcomes we want. Scientific methodology should be a cornerstone of nearly all of the foundation’s efforts.”

This sums up the Moore’s spirit and it defines the way the Moore Foundation operates today. It is an approach that Gordon once described for our efforts to conserve intact ecosystems as winning instead of losing slowly. 

Our approach is aptly described by the concept of adaptive management — a systematic method for project management. It integrates design, management, monitoring and evaluation to provide a framework for testing assumptions, adaptation and learning. In the foundation, adaptive management is best captured by one of our core values, Disciplined Approach. We explicitly define it as using theories of change, systematically testing assumptions, evaluating impact, and using evidence to stay informed and make decisions.

The term adaptive management was first coined in the 1970s by a powerhouse in environmental science, Buzz Holling, who recently passed away. The concept can trace its roots back to William Deming’s “plan-do-check-act” business cycle. And, if you want to go back to the beginning of this cycle, its foundation was laid by Francis Bacon in the early 17th century when he established the “hypothesis–experiment–evaluation” scientific method cycle. At the Moore Foundation, in applying the scientific method to our grantmaking approach, we borrow from Bacon, Deming and Holling all at once.  

When Gordon and Betty established the foundation, it quickly gained a reputation as “the outcomes foundation.” Around the time the foundation was created, I was launching a scrappy nonprofit whose mission it was to transform the field of conservation by getting its managers and leaders to better articulate, frame, and measure outcomes, choose the best interventions to achieve their desired outcomes, and adopt an adaptive management approach in the implementation of their interventions. In our experience, funders were not prioritizing measurement and outcomes. This was long before the concept of strategic philanthropy came into vogue, long before concepts of effective problem analysis, strategic planning, and theory of change took root in the philanthropy community. The Moore Foundation was truly at the vanguard of outcomes-focused grantmaking.

More recently, the foundation documented Our Approach to philanthropy, which describes expectations for our grantmaking life cycles, how individual grants contribute to strategy, and how we measure impact across the entire foundation. Our approach emphasizes the importance of evaluative thinking throughout all phases and across all scales of our grantmaking. It places the responsibility for asking and answering management effectiveness questions in the hands of program staff instead of relying heavily on external professional evaluators who come in every few years to tell us how we are doing. Ultimately, it underscores the importance of effective measurement and monitoring as the source of evidence for accountability, adaptation, and learning. Only this way can we figure out what’s working, what’s not working, and why at multiple scales.

Our founders instilled in us a dogged focus on outcomes and measurement. But they also insisted that the foundation — and those of us who work within its four walls —practice with humility. If you think these two things do not go hand-in-hand — that you can’t pretend to know what you want to accomplish with any amount of precision while maintaining any sense of humility — you don’t know Gordon and Betty Moore. As a scientist, Gordon knew he did not have all the answers, and he also knew what he wanted to accomplish. He knew the best way to get the right answers was to get the right people, ask the right questions, set up experiments, test, succeed, and fail, in order to learn, adapt and improve quickly. This was adaptive management in practice, nothing more, nothing less. 

Richard Margoluis is the chief adaptive management and evaluation officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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