Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: The Power of Field Scans

In days of scarce resources and seemingly endless philanthropic choices, family foundations and funds can frequently feel overwhelmed by options and unsure where to best place their philanthropic bets.  Many funders wisely choose a focus area for funding, and then proceed to investigate – or be approached by – any number of apparently worthy organizations to support within that field. Most frequently, the questions that are asked are ones of organizational strength and track record: which among many groups are the best?

While these are crucial questions for any funder to answer, this approach often leaves out a fundamental question: how do I know that the strategy I am pursuing is the one where there is real need, and where my philanthropic dollars will be best utilized? How do I not re-invent the wheel, and how do I find those strategies where my scarce dollars can be most highly leveraged? Assessing an organization as a stand-alone entity or even in comparison to others in the field begs the question of what the larger framework for funding should be and how a given strategy fits against the broader funding landscape.

Field scans can be particularly valuable for family foundations that want to try a new strategy, find partners, or leverage their assets. According to Amy Goldman, Executive Director of the GHR Foundation, field scans are nearly “essential” for any strategic grantmaker. In this edition of Family Giving News we introduce what field scans are, the different types and purposes of scans, various models of design and methodology, how such scans can be accessed, shared, and kept current, and several stories of impact.

A Primer on Field Scans and Why Funders Conduct Them

Field scans are tools funders use to look at a given field to see where opportunities, needs, and gaps in funding lie. They range from informal phone interviews to learn about what others in your field are funding to more complex and structured studies carefully designed to provide a broad and detailed overview of where a given field has been and is going, where greater support is needed, and where efforts have missed the mark.

Field scans are conducted for many reasons. For funders new to a given field or region of funding, they help explain the terrain of existing funding, which aids in contextualizing the players, partners, and opportunities. For funders who have been working in a field for some time, they provide necessary updates and comparative data about ongoing developments and needs that may assist the funder in exploring new strategies or course correcting. Scans can help funders identify whole new needs in a field that they may have missed – and can help them to identify strategies which have been proven to be less than effective. Especially when conducted by outside parties, they can provide valuable feedback to funders about what the nonprofits or communities they support really need but may feel are not being recognized. Field scans help family funders learn where a niche exists that may be right-sized for their funding dollars, understand where there is already considerable activity and therefore additional dollars may not be as highly leveraged, and where more learning is needed.

In a nutshell, funders undertake scans to have a bird’s eye view of big picture trends, listen to the field, inform and engage others, keep fresh, and identify where target opportunities may lie. Done thoroughly and well, they provide invaluable data about where funding gaps exist, where under-appreciated problems and organizations would benefit greatly from small amounts of support, and where a thoughtful grant can unlock a major opportunity that is as yet unrecognized. Scans can help inform a funder’s position within a particular field, and hence promote more effective, targeted giving.

Many newer funders or families initially react to the idea of scans as an unnecessary cost. Why not just get out and fund and learn along the way? Wouldn’t the money be better spent giving money to deserving NGOs and isn’t it fair to assume that they know how to best spend the resources?

While these reactions are understandable, a great deal is lost by failing to take stock of the big picture, either in the beginning of your philanthropic engagement in a field, or even periodically as a check to assess what others are doing, learning, and exploring. If a well conducted scan that costs no more than a single grant to one grantee could unlock answers to those critical questions, it would save the donor and the field substantial amounts of money in the long run. No matter how small or large a foundation is, its contribution to the grantmaking community can be profound when it helps us all understand what contextualized, thoughtful, and strategic giving in a field might look like.

Different Scan Designs and Methodologies

Field scans take many forms, from informal conversations to in-depth studies. The following is a brief summary of different design scans and methodologies.

  • Interviews:  For an experienced funder who wants to check in with other collaborators, scanning can be as simple as regular phone check-in interviews to learn what other colleagues are doing and to compare notes.
  • Surveys: The easiest and most inexpensive written scans often involve short surveys sent out to funders and/or nonprofits, seeking to learn what they are funding and learning. This is important because it allows one to examine a field more closely, understanding where and how funding within a specific field is distributed.
  • Review of philanthropy resources: Additionally, scans can be conducted informally through consistent review of regular alerts from philanthropy news sites and research databases. For instance, The Foundation Center gathers excellent materials and presents reports like Arts Funding Watch on a regular basis.
  • Focus groups and convenings of stakeholders are other strategies for gathering trends in the field. They can be useful in collecting perspectives from multiple players in a short time and gathering the intelligence of a group.
  • Visual mapping: In recent years, we have seen a proliferation of fee-based mapping tools that use data visualization. Visual mapping seeks to tell an interactive story of philanthropy in any given region, issue area, or target population by combining rich data with filters that literally produce a ‘lay of the land’. By mapping both grant makers and grant seekers, a funder could use these tools to have a more sophisticated understanding of how to position itself and its grants among an almost impossibly faster growing network. While these visual mapping platforms can be an indispensable resource for conducting a scan, they risk telling only part of the story.

The Comprehensive Scan: A Case Study of the Planet Heritage Foundation

With increasingly more family foundations and individual donors entering the field, there is greater need for comprehensive scans that can be shared across and among foundations and individual donors.

Comprehensive field scans can start with a literature review of the existing funders, NGOS, and leading writings in the field. Most scans can build on existing mini surveys created by other foundations, affinity groups, academics or other experts; rarely does one start with a clean slate. A survey of the leading funders and their programs is often a second component; ideally, the scan goes beyond identifying the grantees but explores why the foundation chose the strategy it did. A literature review can also identify leading nonprofit leaders, reports and other background materials.

What is least frequently undertaken but often most significant is an analysis of what has worked in the field, gaps, areas of needed funding and self-assessment of where and how the field should evolve to maximize funding opportunities. These are often subjective assessments, but extensive 360 style interviews with multiple stakeholders can surface key themes and areas of agreement, even where opinions may vary. Scans can also involve informal interviews with other experts outside the field of philanthropy, including academics, journalists, government employees, think tanks, and independent researchers. These conversations can help to identify and build relationships with the most helpful, knowledgeable individuals and entities in a specific field, and can enhance the overall knowledge-base by providing a more critical overview of existing work. It is this synthesis of trends, successes, and failures that distinguish a truly comprehensive scan from a listing of funders and grantees. These efforts can yield significant benefits.

Source: Planet Heritage Foundation,

Several years ago, the Planet Heritage Foundation, a newer funder, commissioned a scan of funding needs and opportunities at the intersection of climate change and national security. Planet Heritage was interested in exploring whether there was a need to support fundamental research in the intersection of these two ideas. The scan began with an extensive literature review that revealed that the idea of funding fundamental research was less important than other issues, including translating existing research into the policy arena.

The second phase of the scan involved detailed conversations with more than 20 experts from the United States and overseas. Planet Heritage learned that only relatively modest amounts of money had been invested in this particular subset of the climate change agenda. The scan pointed out a true funding gap; for small amounts of money, important but underfunded groups could do powerful, needed work.

Six months after launching the field scan, Planet Heritage published a report, “Climate Change and National Security: A Field Map and Analysis of Funding Opportunities”. The report was discussed by national funding groups, provided briefing materials for leading organizations in the field, and found its way into major policy circles. The report identified where there was consensus and disagreement in the field, and continues to provide a valuable roadmap to funders and analysts alike.

Challenges: Keeping Current, Going Public and Managing Expectations

Three challenges often arise when more comprehensive scans are undertaken:

  1. Keeping the information current. To the extent that the scan can be made public and the costs shared, the scan can be kept current by short periodic updates or a wiki style effort for others to share updates.
  2. Managing sensitivities of any new information that is made public, particularly information that is critical of prior efforts. This challenge can be addressed by having both public and private versions of the scan, where certain highly sensitive information can be kept confidential but the remainder published in some form.
  3. Managing expectations. Many funders are reluctant to share scans if they are not sure they will proceed to fund in a given area. While such concerns can be valid, there are still ways of explaining the fundamental findings of the scan while acknowledging the funder’s prerogative to elect to move forward or not and thereby not losing the useful material gathered and analyzed. In the long run, many more philanthropic dollars can be targeted more effectively, even if the original funder elects not to proceed in the direction initially envisioned.

Conclusions: Creating A Framework for Increased Impact

Field scans of all types help funders stay current and avoid reinventing the wheel, and are particularly helpful to new and smaller family foundations because they provide a strong strategic framework to increase impact. Of particular value are more comprehensive scans that move beyond a list of “who funds what” to analysis of effectiveness and gaps. Co-commissioning and sharing such findings, in whole or part, can help to foster honest discussion, encourage collaboration, minimize redundant funding and improve decision-making.

Comprehensive scans require an upfront investment and time to keep updated, and a scan alone will not invariably lead to better funding outcomes. But well-designed and executed scans shared more broadly can point the way to better use of foundation dollars overall.