Ever since 2004, when we published our landmark research on multi-generational families called Generations of Giving: Leadership and Continuity in Family Foundations, we have been working toward the day when we could offer family foundations a tool that would help them assess their performance on the key factors we identified in that research as indicators of excellence. That day has finally come.

In January, we launched Pursuit of Excellence (POE), the first-ever assessment process designed specifically for family foundations. It enables a foundation’s board and staff to understand their strengths, as well as areas needing improvement, in their practices around legacy, vision, mission, governance, family involvement, board functions, grantmaking, fiscal oversight, and foundation management. The tool measures the board and senior staff’s views both on how the foundation currently operates and what they aspire to. The process includes development of an action plan and resources to help enact it.

You may think we’ve launched this service at an unfortunate time. While it’s true that most foundations are focusing their time and resources on their grantees and aren’t looking inward, I would contend that this is exactly the time to do so. During a tough economy, it is imperative that foundations do all they can to ensure they are operating effectively. This has a direct relationship on their ability to have the greatest impact possible with limited grant funds.

We also know there is a huge need for this assessment process. In a nationwide, random survey of family foundations we conducted last summer, most respondents said they were concerned about their effectiveness but had no formal process for assessment. Certainly, the funders who supported the development of POE believed strongly in the value of foundations examining their performance and seeking ways to improve in order to achieve maximum effectiveness.

The survey referenced above was another key event in the POE project. Our research project, Survey of Current Practices, was the first random survey of its kind that looked at foundation practices in governance, management and grantmaking. We published the highlights last fall and will publishing the full report this spring.

Throughout the development of POE, we have been guided by an outstanding advisory committee led by Alice Buhl, our senior fellow and a founding board member. Many of you know Alice, a leading consultant in the family foundation field, who is Director of Philanthropic Services with Lansberg, Gersick and Associates. Alice led the design of the tool and the process. Now she is training the consultants who will administer it on a volunteer basis.