Editor's Note: This blog post originally appeared here.
“We have too many people trying to problem-solve from a distance,” says Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). “And when you try to problem-solve from a distance you miss the details and the nuances of the problems and your solutions don’t work very effectively.”
Earlier this year at the 2017 CEP Conference, Stevenson talked about his and EJI’s work providing legal representation to people appealing death row convictions, sharing powerful stories about his interactions with those who have been treated unjustly by the legal system. I found Stevenson’s talk to be inspiring. Yet, his call to be meaningfully connected to the people we ultimately seek to help can seem difficult from inside a foundation. The plenary left me wondering: Which foundations are indeed staying connected with their beneficiaries? Why is this work important to them? How do they do it well?
CEP’s new report, Staying Connected: How Five Foundations Understand Those They Seek to Help, provides concrete answers to these questions. The report profiles five foundations that rank among the top 15 percent of foundations that commissioned a Grantee Perception Report (GPR) between 2016 and 2017 when it comes to how their grantees rated them on questions related to their understanding of intended beneficiaries’ needs and how their funding priorities reflect that understanding.
My biggest takeaway from this research? Nothing should keep us from listening!
Here are three reasons why:
First, from the nonprofit perspective, in order to be effective, foundations must understand the end beneficiaries of the work they are funding. In my work with Fund for Shared Insight (which provided grant support to CEP for this report), I have spoken to funders all over the country about supporting grantees to listen more systematically to the people they ultimately seek to help. Unfortunately, I often hear funders say it’s not their place or role to listen directly to beneficiaries. “We trust grantees to listen to clients,” they tell me. “Our job is to listen to grantees and connect with them.”
Staying Connected highlights that nonprofit leaders want funders to understand their end beneficiaries better, and they believe that doing so makes funders more effective. The report shares several compelling comments from nonprofit leaders that underscore this point. This takeaway was also driven home in another session at this year’s CEP Conference, moderated by my Hewlett Foundation colleague Fay Twersky. In the session, Twersky led a panel that included a funder, a nonprofit leader, and three participants in the nonprofit’s services. (The nonprofit was the Center for Employment Opportunities(CEO), and the participants were men who had used CEO’s services to help them get jobs when they returned home from prison.)
This was in itself rare. Clients and beneficiaries are not often included at philanthropy conferences, even though they are the focus of many foundations’ work — and likely the subject of much of the conference’s content. The nonprofit leader on the panel said that it is never a hassle when funders ask to learn more about participants. In fact, she said she wished that more funders would ask. Similarly, all five of the funders profiled in Staying Connected take a deep interest in the lives and experiences of their intended beneficiaries, and none worry that it isn’t their role to do so, or that they are somehow burdening grantees or “going around them” in seeking this connection.
Second, staying connected outside the foundation starts inside with a mindset of openness, curiosity, and willingness to see and do things differently — all of which is within a foundation’s control. “Spend time with [beneficiaries]. Do not assume you have all the answers. Be curious and willing to learn. Be willing to let go of your current thinking and adjust, as appropriate. Be committed to making a difference, and be willing to absorb and integrate new information to make better decisions,” says Rhett Mabry of the Duke Endowment, one of the foundations profiled in the report. Amelia Riedel, of the SC Ministry Foundation, another of the five foundations, notes, “We have a person-centered approach, not institution-centered. We are less focused on making the institution successful, and more focused on successful outcomes for the people we are trying to serve.” These values and approaches can be cultivated in any foundation.
Further, the foundations profiled show that you don’t have to make a choice between research and listening to beneficiaries. These are different and complementary ways of knowing; you can and should be open to both. Lin Hollowell III of the Duke Endowment explains, “We do our best to make sure that we have a thorough understanding of the needs before we throw a solution at the problem. And understanding the needs often involves doing some independent research and then capturing lots of different perspectives and connecting the dots.” For example, the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation pays attention to a national survey of adults with disabilities called “Ask Me!”, and learns from that survey data to inform its work.
Third, implementing practices to stay connected is something any foundation can do well. There may be practices inside your foundation that you feel you can’t change — perhaps doing so would be too time consuming or complicated, or maybe you don’t have enough influence or authority. The great news is that listening is not one of these practices. And anyone who wants to be more connected to those they seek to help can find actionable practices in this report.
For example, the Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation holds annual grantee convenings where they make time for grantees to share the opportunities and challenges they see with the people they serve. Grantees get to learn from each other about clients, and the funder can learn alongside its grantees. Several of the profiled funders also talk about how they not only make time for site visits, but also ensure that they speak with clients on those visits. They see this as time well spent.
Grant Oliphant of the Heinz Endowments is quoted in in the introduction of the report saying, “We have a responsibility to use more of [our] wealth to bear witness to the strengths and struggles, dreams and fears of America’s most challenged and vulnerable citizens, whoever they may be.” If this is the ultimate goal of our work in philanthropy, nothing should keep us from listening to those very people.