The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s recent surveyHow Far Have We Come? Foundation CEOs on Progress and Impact” has generated a lively and insightful discussion on the advances and challenges in assessing foundation performance. One aspect of the report that we found particularly intriguing was the tension between CEOs’ overwhelming desire to support programs with proven results and their interest in taking risks on ambitious, long-term strategies that are harder to assess. One CEO put the tradeoff especially well, expressing concerns about “the trend toward less risky investments and that too little funding will go toward policy change and advocacy, in favor of programs that can be more easily measured.”

Fortunately, our experience is that taking on risk does not rule out measurable results. The Hewlett Nuclear Security Initiative, for example, pursues a goal on which it is difficult to measure success: reduce the probability of a state or terrorist nuclear attack. Nevertheless, the Initiative is quite specific about their objectives, including encouraging Turkey and Brazil to advocate for non-proliferation and persuading the US and China to push for nuclear security in Pakistan. Understanding these outcomes led the Initiative to monitor a list of global policy developments – like a collapse of the state in Pakistan – that would change their strategies during the advocacy campaign. Moreover, as the Initiative progresses, close evaluation of its results can build broader understanding of what works in other, similar circumstances.

Risk and ambiguity are facts of life in fields like nuclear security, but they are not incompatible with assessments of effectiveness and accountability for results. By clarifying the assumptions behind their work and sharing results and lessons, foundations can demonstrate progress in risky fields – perhaps not as scientifically as in service delivery, but well enough to improve practice and point the way to progress.