Organisational effectiveness: lessons learned from C&A Foundation

Leslie Johnston

By Leslie Johnston

Last year, we commissioned an external evaluation of C&A Foundation’s first five years. Led by the Canadian firm Universalia, this evaluation (called the Overall Effectiveness Evaluation or OEE) explored not only what C&A Foundation achieved in the fashion industry, but also how effectively the foundation ran its own operations.

The team poked and prodded us over a six-month period, interviewing more than 250 people (including our partners, governors, staff and other stakeholders), reviewing evaluations and internal reports and analysing our data to pull out useful insights.

At the same time, we also put in place an external review committee (led by Nancy MacPherson, former managing director for evaluation at the Rockefeller Foundation) to ensure this exercise, which represented a significant investment in time, resources, and energy, would increase our overall effectiveness.

Was it worth it?

Well…yes. But it wasn’t easy; learning and reflection needs time and effort, after all. The evaluation posed many tough questions which ultimately helped us understand why we have been successful in some areas, and less successful in others. I am extremely proud of what we achieved in only five years – from advancing collaborative innovation in fashion (with Fashion for Good) to accelerating the uptake of transparency for more accountability. Our partners achieved far more than I could ever have imagined when we repositioned C&A Foundation in 2014 to focus on making fashion a force for good.

At the same time, we had a few failures (or, in philanthropy-speak, “lessons learned”). These lessons informed a robust set of recommendations which have helped shape the direction we have since taken by retiring the C&A Foundation brand and launching the new Laudes Foundation in early 2020.

So what were some of the “So what’s”? :

Branding. The OEE offered a provocative recommendation to end the brand association between C&A Foundation and the C&A business. While this association brought many benefits to both entities and the partnerships we formed, it also had some limitations (e.g., as a branded, corporate foundation, C&A Foundation’s focus areas were largely limited to those aligned with the sustainability priorities of the company). Now, as Laudes Foundation, we are able to bring a broader, systems-lens to our work, which goes well beyond the fashion industry.

Gender, Equity, and Inclusion. The OEE stressed the need to be clearer on how we approach gender, equity and inclusion (GEI), both in terms of how we work with partners and our own internal operations. In response, we have updated our commitment in a public statement with clear 2020 priorities, re-positioned GEI as a core part of our Effective Philanthropy function (giving it more significance to our grant-making, evaluations and learning), and ensured this lens is tightly integrated into our soon-to-be-launched five-year strategy and Theory of Change.

Effective Leadership and Governance. The OEE offered several recommendations on how to strengthen the leadership of the foundation, including adjusting its structure to enable a nimbler organisation. These recommendations influenced the design of the Laudes operating model, which now includes a management team (with clear accountability for decision-making). We also redesigned our governance to include an Effectiveness and Learning Committee (which enables us to assess our progress on a continuous basis) as well as an advisory council, to which we will invite diverse leaders from business, civil society, public institutions and finance to guide our strategic choices.

Organising for Systems Change. The OEE highlighted how some of our functions – notably communications and effective philanthropy - were not necessarily aligned with C&A Foundation’s systems change ambition. This recommendation led to a redesign of our communications function in order to strengthen the foundation’s influence role. Specifically, we added two new capabilities -advocacy and changing the narrative – to enable the foundation to have a consistent and compelling approach to influence. Likewise, we deepened our Effective Philanthropy function, expanding on our work to strengthen partner organisations through core and general operating support, developing our first organisational learning strategy, and changing how we measure results (moving from short-term KPIs to more flexible and insightful evaluative rubrics / ratings).

Going forward, we will continue to pull on the OEE recommendations and the insights in the larger report as we continue to build Laudes Foundation.

Would I do this again?

Yes, but only after our first five years. And when we commission another OEE, we will do it in such a way as to reduce the heavy burden on our staff and partners. But five years is a long time to wait to get feedback on our performance. For that reason, we are also incorporating ways to enable real-time learning, from developmental evaluations to various tools to track our progress (such as rubrics, after action reviews, evaluations, etc.). Such learning tools are critical to helping us understand if we are making the right strategic choices. Because, with such an ambitious mission, we do not have time to lose.


About the author

By Leslie Johnston

Leslie Johnston launched Laudes Foundation as its first Chief Executive Officer in January 2020, bringing over 20 years of management experience across business and philanthropy. At Laudes Foundation, she is leading the development of its initial vision, strategy and operating model to deliver on its aspiration for global markets that value all people and respect nature. Previously, she headed C&A Foundation as its Executive Director, repositioning it as a global catalyst to make fashion a force for good.

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