As funders seek to leverage their resources for impact and change, many ignore a powerful asset right under their gaze. This hidden asset is the donor, board member, family member, or staff person who possesses curiosity—the drive to venture out into the community or field to listen, talk with people, and learn.
From interviews with over a hundred small-staffed funders around the country, I have learned that these inquisitive people are the ones who discover insights that take their foundation or philanthropy in a new direction, to a new level of impact. They are the ones who, by talking with people from diverse walks of life, convening grantees and community agencies, attending public meetings, or going to conferences, find out something that changes the game for their philanthropy.
These individuals take the initiative to reach out and talk with board and staff of nonprofit organizations, other foundations in their region or field, beneficiaries of social services, university researchers, business leaders, government officials, social workers, journalists, teachers, parents, students, volunteers.
During their conversations, they ask,
- What issues do you think are most urgent, in need of attention?
- What important problems are being ignored?
- What approaches are working? What isn’t working?
- Who is doing the best work on the issue?
- What are gaps, opportunities?
- If you found funding to do anything you wanted, what would you do to address the problem?
- What role can we play—as funders, and also as convenors, matchmakers, researchers, advocates?
Dee Ann Harris, executive director of the Leightman-Maxey Foundation in Oregon, makes it a regular practice to attend a regional conference for nonprofit organizations. One year, during a “speed dating” activity designed to help nonprofits meet local funders, Dee Ann realized that many organizations working in the area of nutrition—a focus area for the foundation—were not aware of each other, nor of valuable resources available to them in the region. She proposed to her board that the foundation offer to convene area agencies working on nutrition—not only nonprofits but also government agencies and business groups. The initial convening was so popular that the groups pleaded with the foundation to convene them regularly. The convenings have led to greater coordination and the incubation of new public education campaigns on nutrition.
Leslie Cheu, executive director of The Troy Savings Bank Charitable Foundation in Troy, New York, seeks out other regional funders to share experiences. Leslie discovered that peer funders were also seeing an increasing numbers of requests for capacity building support. As a result, her foundation partnered with the Community Foundation for the Greater Capital Region to plan a training series on board development, strategic planning, financial management, and other skill areas for regional nonprofits. Another outcome of these conversations is that Leslie’s foundation will allocate more of its funding toward core support in the future.
Many foundations and donors fail to take advantage of their power to develop knowledge and insight. They leave untapped their unique perspective to look across organizations, their freedom to inquire and circulate widely, their access to people with knowledge.
Empower your board members, staff, family—and yourself! Here is how.
Nurturing a Culture of Inquiry
Trust in the value and power of knowledge
Trust that the time you invest gaining insight will illuminate the issues you care about, uncover opportunities, and open doors to impact and change.
Anne Arundel Women Giving Together (AAWGT), a women’s giving circle in Maryland, surveys its member donors each year, soliciting ideas for topics for its donor education sessions. One year a member suggested looking into human sex trafficking, a growing problem in the region that many donors and residents were not aware of. The giving circle convened local and national experts on sex trafficking as one of its education sessions, which led a Baltimore County-based program to apply and secure grant funding from the giving circle for a public awareness campaign in Anne Arundel County. Bronwyn Belling, former president of AAWGT, reflects that reaching out to its donors “allowed us to become more informed philanthropists, and we hoped, thought leaders about an emerging/pressing issue in our area.”
Leaders should make clear to everyone involved in their philanthropy that learning is important and valued, and carve out time and space for it. Encourage and invite trustees, executive directors, program officers, grants managers, administrators to go out into the community. Knowledge gathering is also a great project for family members and next generation members.
The Tow Foundation in Connecticut made landscape scanning a family enterprise, with multiple generations involved in listening tours.
Take the long view
One conversation, one convening, one public meeting may not uncover game-changing insight. Give your trustees, family, and staff time and space to venture out regularly over the course of months, or a year or two. Taking time to understand patterns, trends, and the social, economic, and cultural system of a problem can yield insight into gaps and leverage points for change.
Share knowledge and insights gained
Ask those who venture out into the field to regularly share what they learn with board, family members, and staff colleagues.
Make time for inquiry by streamlining your application and reporting processes
There are many proven strategies to streamline, including right-sizing for smaller grants and known grantees, trimming applications and reports, and investing in web-based grants management systems.
Nurture the spark of curiosity
If you notice that a trustee, family member, or staff person is energized by engaging people in the community, attending public meetings, or convening, nurture her curiosity and love of learning. Value that inquisitiveness as something precious, prized. It can fire into passion. And passion, bound with knowledge and insight, can take your philanthropy very far.
Lean funders who are catalytic have shifted their philanthropy from a transactional, year-to-year practice of reviewing proposals and writing checks, to a more transformational enterprise that engages people and stakeholders over years or decades.
The current crisis can offer the perfect moment to make a significant change.
In this three-part Learning Lab, you will develop a foundation for practicing a catalytic style of philanthropy. Learn more >>
Senior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.