Finding a Focus for Your Funding: Landscape Scans

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Some of the most common questions families ask me are: How do we choose where to give? How can my family and I agree on something that will inspire us now, and keep us interested over time? And how can we find out what the community truly needs to achieve the best results for our funding area?

It’s difficult yet necessary to choose among the many good causes to fund. Donors may think it’s best to fund many causes rather than narrow it to one or two. After all, doesn’t it sound better to fund more than less? Yet if you ask how to achieve the most good with a foundation or donor’s limited resources, you may answer the question differently.

In time, family philanthropists realize they can only achieve real and lasting impact if they choose a few areas to focus on—be it specific causes, communities, or geographical areas. Some people call this being strategic about their philanthropy. Strategic philanthropy is a term that gets used a lot in the field, often with different meanings. At the heart of it, being strategic simply means finding a focus that is based on community needs, setting specific goals within that focus, and having a thoughtful process to gauge how well you met those goals.

Simply because you decide to be strategic about your philanthropy doesn’t mean you stop being responsive to needs. Some funders maintain a portion of their grantmaking portfolio for responsive grantmaking, giving them the flexibility to make grants as needs in the community arise. Others offer their board or family members discretionary grants, earmarking a certain dollar amount per member to use for their own personal passions or specific to their local community. This allows the philanthropy overall to stay mission-driven, while making sure board or family members stay engaged and interested.

Scanning the Landscape

With all the worthy causes to support, how will you and your family decide where to focus?

One of the ways to find a focus in philanthropy is through what’s called a landscape scan. Many use this in philanthropy, and at its most basic, it simply means doing your research to determine where and how to give your resources.

Landscape scans are tools funders use to look at a given field or issue area to identify the needs, opportunities, and gaps in funding. They then use this information to guide their giving and strategy decisions, and understand how to be most effective in their philanthropy.

Scans can be done in many ways that fit your time, budget, and operating style. They can be informal phone interviews, surveys, a study of research, press clippings, and field journals, or more complex and structured study or focus groups. They don’t have to be long and complicated—they simply need to answer the questions you want to learn.

For new funders, landscape scans can provide more understanding about existing funders, experts, and opportunities in any given issue area. For seasoned funders, they can provide updates, data, ongoing developments, and needs that can help you assess impact, explore new strategies, and course correct as needed.

How to Get Started on a Landscape Scan

Some donors conduct a needs assessment when they are figuring out their philanthropic mission or focus area. Others scan the landscape once or twice a year to inform their strategies. Some conduct the needs assessments themselves, while others hire skilled philanthropy advisors or firms to do the research for them.

To get started on your philanthropic landscape scan, it helps to think through and discuss the following questions as a family, staff, or board.

Ask yourselves:

  1. What are the most important questions we want to answer? How can we prioritize these questions?
  2. Who are the best people or organizations to find answers? How can we be sure?
  3. What methods will we use to conduct the landscape scan (e.g., interviews, literature reviews, a focus group, a combination?)
  4. How will we respectfully engage community members as part of this process, to make sure we are including and hearing diverse voices?
  5. How will we identify our own blind spots and assumptions?
  6. What support do we need from colleagues, experts, and/or philanthropic advisors?
  7. How will we use and share the data we collect? In what ways will it help the field to access this data?
  8. How will we use the data to inform our own strategies and decision making?

Landscape Scans Build Lasting Relationships

Landscape scans do more than collect information; they are also a way to make connections and build relationships with others in the field you wish to support. It will help you to get to know other people and organizations, test ideas, and get feedback before funding them. It always helps to ask, “who else should I be speaking to about this?” Many people will happily share their contacts or additional ideas to consider.

It helps to conduct landscape scans on a regular basis to keep your learning and relationships relevant. The most effective family philanthropists are the ones who never assume anything, who never stop asking questions about how they can best support the causes and communities they care most about, and who never stop listening to the communities they hope to serve.

Suzanne Hammer of Hammer & Associates gives family philanthropists the tools they need to engage in and connect with their philanthropy—helping philanthropic individuals and families pair their passion with proven strategies. To learn more, download her EngagedPhilanthropy guides – including a new one on Finding Focus and Scanning the Landscape – at SuzanneHammer.com or contact her at 303-319-3029. Follow @SuzHammerGiving.


The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.

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