New Research and a Welcome Surprise from Foundation CEOs | Beth's Blog

New Research and a Welcome Surprise from Foundation CEOs

Guest Post, Philanthropy, Research Studies

New Research and a Welcome Surprise from Foundation CEOs

By Lindsay Austin Louie

“How much promise do the following practices hold for increasing foundations’ impact in the coming decades?” The twenty-four potential answers provided covered a broad spectrum of philanthropic practice, from taking more risks, to providing more general operating support, to engaging in impact investing.

This question was one of many in a recently released research study commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. It was independently conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy and included in-depth interviews and a survey with CEOs of more than 200 of America’s foundations. The goal of the research was to understand how CEOs think about challenges of the future, the extent to which foundations are prepared for that future, and what more we need to do to meet the challenges ahead.

So, what answers did foundation CEOs give?

The most widely identified practice to increase foundations’ impact in the coming decades, cited by 69% of CEO respondents, is that foundations should seek to learn from the experiences of those they are ultimately trying to help. In addition, foundation CEOs saw promise in learning from grantee experiences (67%) and nearly half of CEOs (45%) cited supporting grantees to learn from their beneficiaries. (See Report, Appendix A, page 30 for the full list of practices for which some CEOs said that the practice holds “A Lot of Promise.”)

The need to listen is something the William and Flora Hewlett takes seriously. Two years ago, we joined with seven other grantmakers to launch the Fund for Shared Insight to work on this very practice. A primary objective of Shared Insight’s work is to strengthen the practice of listening to those we ultimately seek to help with our grant funding.

We knew that momentum for this practice was building, when in 2016, 23 new funders joined the Fund for Shared Insight’s signature grantmaking program, Listen for Good, to support a simple, systematic feedback system for nonprofits around the country to listen to the people they serve, act on what they hear, and share what they are learning with funders.

Nevertheless, this latest research finding showing such a widespread consensus about the practice of listening caught us by surprise! We’re thrilled, but it also gave us pause to ask ourselves, “Why are we surprised?” As important as we know beneficiary feedback and human-centered design and the related spheres of work are, they have not received the attention in the philanthropic press or on the conference circuit as many of the other topics listed.

It is early days for Fund for Shared Insight; we made our first grants in January 2015. Already though, over 50 nonprofits funded by Shared Insight are working to implement feedback loops with their clients.

One food bank participating in Listen for Good began the project with all sorts of “predetermined” ideas about how they could augment their food program to better serve clients – maybe menus, cooking classes, or improved nutritional information. When asked, though, what clients said would most help them was having access to dental services at the food bank. This was not the answer they might have predicted, yet it is a critical service to provide particularly given that close to 40% of partner agency clients served are children under the age of 18.

Another Listen for Good grantee is ECHOS, a nonprofit in Houston TX that provides 1:1 application assistance to low-income individuals so they and their families can access critical medical and social services such as food stamps or Medicaid. The organization serves a substantial recent immigrant and refugee population, who often lack English language proficiency or knowledge of how to navigate the system. Through Listen for Good, clients confirmed the value of the services provided by the organization but noted that excessive waiting times (often multiple hours) make the support extremely difficult to access. In response, the organization is going to be looking at ways to revamp its appointment process which supports filing close to 5,000 applications each year. In addition, ECHOS has instituted extended hours to better serve clients and a Food/Mini Health Fair on the first Sunday of the month as a result of client feedback.
When funders hear stories like these, it opens a new pathway for understanding and responsiveness, allowing funders to partner even more productively with grantees to understand how they can best meet clients’ needs.

Fund for Shared Insight co-chairs Fay Twersky and Hilary Pennington recently shared the story of Nurse Family Partnership in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. At a meeting hosted by the White House about feedback, NFP’s CEO said to others planning to embark on this feedback journey, “Prepare to be wrong.” It’s not a trivial statement. We come to this work with implicit (and explicit) assumptions, and the point of listening to those we seek to help is to hear them – and even if our assumptions were wrong – to act on what we hear. In Nurse Family Partnership’s case, they thought clients might not want to use technology to communicate and give feedback, and moms told them they prefer it!
These early examples are just the tip of the iceberg and Shared Insight is eager to continue supporting nonprofits and funders to systematically listen to those they seek to help, and act on what they learn.

We very much hope this latest research finding can help elevate the topic and the practice so that more funders will implement feedback loops and other methods for really listening to the people they ultimately seek to help – whether that is directly or in partnership with the nonprofits they fund. Fund for Shared Insight is definitely one way to do that – through getting involved directly or taking advantages of our resources and lessons learned. Please visit to learn more.

Lindsay Austin Louie is a Program Officer for the philanthropy grantmaking program, which sits within the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group.

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