How Do Foundations Learn?

Foundations are a key audience for many organizations. Researchers like us want to share insights from evaluations to help inform funders’ practices and strategies. Funders often want to engage their peers in the field on issues and approaches they prioritize. Until now, we have lacked objective data about how funders actually find and use knowledge.

Given a goal of promoting more effective philanthropy, and a portfolio of grantees who produce knowledge about the topic, the Hewlett Foundation is particularly interested in understanding how funders find and use knowledge to inform their work. The Foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group recently engaged Harder+Company to explore the question: “How do staffed foundations find relevant knowledge and use it to inform their philanthropic practice?” To answer this question, we partnered with Edge Research on a unique study that included more than 70 interviews and a survey of more than 700 foundation staff and board members. Together this data provides a clear picture of how foundation staff and board members seek out, share, and use information related to effective philanthropy.

Through our study, we identified three phases that define the process of knowledge acquisition and use: gathering, vetting, and (potentially) using knowledge. This diagram from the report illustrates all of the questions that we considered for each phase:

We learned a lot in this study. Most strikingly, funders feel overwhelmed by the volume of practice knowledge available. Their experience came out in many of the interviews we conducted: “It’s relentless. Daily. Multiple times a day. It’s terribly annoying to be quite honest with you. Because everyone’s out there trying to sell you a product or service.” One way that they respond to the volume of knowledge and ideas available is by turning to their peers and colleagues to help navigate the information. “I still feel like I have the tools to identify which person is the right person to get information from, whereas I don’t really feel that I have those tools when it comes to written material.” Busy professionals often feel that they don’t have the time to engage in the review and compilation required to find the best information source. But peers can help connect knowledge to application by sharing experiences “from similar foundations doing similar work so I get a sense of what’s important to them… what’s happening in their institutions and related to mine. I get to use them as a sounding board for things that are troubling me.”

Hewlett commissioned this research to help knowledge-producing organizations reach foundation staff and board members and promote more effective practice. We identified three crucial strategies for doing that:

  • Make knowledge digestible: Like many of us, funders take only a few moments to quickly vet a knowledge product to see if it is relevant. Knowledge products need to be clear and concise. They should include a brief summary, be easy to read and quickly accessible by incorporating visuals, discussion questions, checklists, and other techniques.
  • Make it relevant and available: To catch a funder’s attention and ultimately be used, knowledge needs to feel extremely relevant to a funder and available at that moment when they are thinking about how to change something in their organization. Our research includes case studies of how knowledge spurred change at three foundations, illustrating how well designed products and multiple points of communication helped funders make use of the insights. Spitfire Strategies provides a number of great free tools for effective communications planning –
  • Connect with key peer influencers: Since foundation staff rely on their peers to share their experiences and advice, we suggest that organizations seeking to inform them identify and target influential opinion leaders in the foundation field. Some ways to leverage influencers is by engaging them in advisory boards or as reviewers. Partnering with regional grantmaker associations and funder affinity groups, who we found to be important knowledge sources, can also strengthen your work and help spread the knowledge.

This study shows that funders are actively using knowledge to inform their work—but that we all need to be more purposeful in how we share knowledge so that it successfully informs and influences foundations and their important work with the social sector and society overall.

We are not the only ones talking about these findings. There is a lot to learn from this research. You may find these other perspectives interesting: