The Noyce Foundation: Ten Core Principles for Hands-on Philanthropy

The Noyce Foundation was established in 1990 by the family of the late physicist, inventor, and computer industry pioneer Dr. Robert N. Noyce, co-founder of Fairchild Semiconductor and Intel, and co-inventor of the integrated circuit, better known as the microchip. For the past quarter-century, the Noyce Foundation has been devoted to helping the nation’s students become “curious, thoughtful, and engaged” learners in the fields of mathematics and science.

The Noyce Foundation Story, 1990–2015: Achieving high impact with low overhead, tells the story of the Noyce Foundation and describes the strategies and lessons learned during its 25 year history, concluding with its spend down in November 2015.

Over its quarter century of existence, the Noyce Foundation’s approach to grant making evolved reflecting what the trustees have learned from their cumulative experiences as well as the institutional knowledge the foundation has gained about the fields it in which it works. The foundation shared ten core principles that characterize it’s approach:

1. Keep it small, simple—and nimble

Noyce Foundation leaders are firm believers in simple, no-frills offices and keeping the number of employees to a minimum, only hiring as many full-time staff as absolutely necessary. “We bring into it a certain amount of humility,” says Trustee Penny Noyce, daughter of Dr. Noyce. “We don’t want things like a glossy brochure, or fancy offices, or paying ourselves big salaries. We want to keep the focus on the work… It shouldn’t be the applicant coming hand-in-hand to us, but us looking for really great people doing exciting things.”

2. Don’t accept proposals—go out and seek them

“We are an old-fashioned style of foundation,” said Noyce Foundation Trustee Bob Schwartz, who directed the Education Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts before joining the Harvard faculty. “We are not creating projects and looking for people to run them, but we are trying to talent scout and invest in good people, and our grantees really appreciate that difference.”

3. Take a “hands-on” approach with grantees

When the Noyce Foundation gives an organization 
a grant, it typically comes with a significant set
 of commitments for both the grantee and the foundation itself. “We are very demanding that the goals represent outcomes rather than counting heads,” says Ann Bowers, Chair of the Board and the co-founding trustee of the Noyce Foundation. “We don’t accept the idea that by serving more students or teachers the organization will have a greater impact, ” she said. “I tell them that ‘This is a long-term relationship you are looking at—so you will have to be sure you want this. Not only will we want reports: we will want to talk to you and we will send in consultants to work with you.’”

4. Build meaningful partnerships

The Noyce Foundation never is the only funder on
a project because it is dangerous for an organization to rely on one funder for support. Executive Director Ron Ottinger explains: “There must be another funder, and the grantee must think about its mix of earned income and grant income to sustain its efforts.”

5. Create sustained relationships

The Foundation identifies and supports a key set of organizations within a chosen field, and develops and maintains close working relationships with them for many years. Linda Kekelis of Techbridge said she found it incredibly valuable that the Noyce Foundation was willing to provide a source of general organizational support. 
 “They look at groups that are doing [their work] effectively, ask them what they want to do, and then support them to do more and better. They have been a really steady foundation with a huge interest in afterschool time.”

6. Focus on organizations with strong and committed leadership

Key to the Noyce Foundation’s decision to fund
 any grantee is its assessment of the strength and commitment of the organization’s leaders. 
 This approach to funding owes something to Silicon Valley’s culture of venture capital (VC). “We look at philanthropy the way VC’s look at their investment opportunities,” said Ann. “We use the same criteria a VC would: leadership first, idea second, and a well- conceived plan to carry out the idea third.”

7. Insist that grantees be learning organizations

The foundation expects leaders to remain focused on how to improve their operations and effectiveness over time, and is not immediately put off by a grantee’s failure to achieve certain goals. “They’re doing hard things, and we expect roadblocks and wrong turns,” said Trustee Penny Noyce, daughter of founder Bob Noyce. “What matters is how they process the problems and what they decide to do about it.” The foundation trustees expect grantees to be transparent and thoughtful about their failures rather than only trumpeting their successes.

8. Connect and coach organizational leaders

One path to helping organizations learn is to connect leaders of organizations that are in the same field to share learning and look for overlap and gaps where they could work together. Convening and networking isn’t terribly expensive,” says Ann, “but these efforts are not fruitful without a thoughtful process and a good facilitator. This is one way a foundation or foundations together can make an investment that can lead to breakthroughs in how an organization is thinking.”

9. When appropriate, strongly encourage complementary organizations to collaborate

At times the foundation goes beyond convening and networking
to strongly urge complementary organizations to collaborate. To
make collaboration possible, the foundation will broker meetings, compensate organizations for some portion of staff time devoted to the partnership, and even pay a consultant or fund a position to coordinate the effort.

10. Seek to identify gaps in the field and then fill them

A final key principle of the Noyce Foundation’s grantmaking approach was its ability to actively identify gaps in the field and then leverage its grantmaking investments to fill these gaps. Ann cites three examples: collecting and sharing reliable data about what approaches to science learning make a difference at the Program in Education Afterschool and Resilience; building a pipe line of leaders for science centers world wide at the Noyce Leadership Institute; and providing training resources for people teaching in the informal science area at Click2SciencePD.

“All of these efforts took courage and persistence on our part and a lot of effort on the part of our grantees as well as our staff, but the returns will be felt for many years to come,” says Bowers. “This approach is an important part of the unique role that family foundations can play.”

To learn more about these ten core principles and the rest of the Noyce Foundation’s history, sign up for our April 14th webinar on Coming to a close: Lessons from two spend down family foundations or download the complete Passages Family Profile.