A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Listening and Learning to Assess Needs, Find Your Niche

Scanning, a seldom discussed but powerful strategy for philanthropic impact, involves taking time to learn more about your community or a particular field to find out how your giving can be most effective. It involves intentional learning to develop a giving focus or design—or refine—a giving strategy.

Why scan?

Because the most effective giving is grounded in the donor’s values and real needs, funders use scanning to discover priority needs, including those that are ignored. Funders often ask this key question: Which issues in my community or area of interest are most serious and most in need of attention? Choosing to address a significant problem or issue overlooked by other funders is a powerful strategy for impact.

Funders also use scanning to find out more about their chosen focus areas. Through scanning, you can learn about barriers to progress, promising strategies, approaches that haven’t worked, effective agencies and programs, public funding streams, potential collaborators, and opportunities to make a difference.

Ways to scan

Scanning can be done in ways that fit your time, budget, and operating style. Some funders do one big scan to develop their focus. Others scan every few years. Some even scan a little bit once or twice a year to inform and refine their strategies. Scanning can be equally effective if your giving has a geographical focus or a topical one.

Here are a few approaches you might take:

  • Talk with people in diverse walks of life to find out what they’re worried about or what opportunities there might be to strengthen your community or field of interest. Consider nonprofit board members and staff, social workers, university researchers, business leaders, government officials, journalists, teachers, parents, students, volunteers, recipients of social services, and selected organizations you currently support.
  • During your conversations, ask, What issues are most in need of attention? What important problems are being ignored? These questions can help you identify a giving focus.
  • If you’ve chosen a giving focus and want to design your giving strategy, ask, What approaches are working, and what isn’t working? Who is doing the best work on the issue?
  • Talk with program staff from local foundations and the United Way about their perspectives on community needs and priorities and effective strategies for particular issues. Achieve results and track impact against a few key measures, at least through basic means.
  • Call or meet with others funding in your focus area to learn the strategies they use and why, and what they’ve learned along the way.
  • Many larger foundations publish valuable information about their goals, strategies, and grantees on their websites and in annual reports.
  • Read materials produced by funder affinity groups, such as Grantmakers in Health and Grantmakers for Education, or by resource groups and associations that are experts in issue areas.

As a funder, you have the privilege and opportunity to talk with almost anyone in a community. Pick up the phone or send an e-mail, and you may well find that doors open for you.

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