What Helps Foundations to Deeply Understand their Beneficiaries?

This post from former CEP Associate Manager, Research, Ramya Gopal originally appeared on the blog in February 2015 and draws from the CEP research report, Hearing from Those We Seek to Help. It is reposted here as part of our Rewind blog series.

Nonprofit leaders have a sober assessment of foundations’ understanding of those they seek to help. CEP research shows that only 38 percent of nonprofit leaders believe that most or all of their foundation funders have a deep understanding of their intended beneficiaries’ needs.  So, from the perspective of nonprofit leaders, what characteristics set apart foundation funders that do understand the needs of their intended beneficiaries?

From our data, we found the top three characteristics nonprofit leaders mentioned include: engaging with grantees; being humble, open, and collaborative; and developing a deep connection to the issues or communities. Let’s take a closer look at the influence nonprofit leaders feel these characteristics in particular have on foundations’ understanding of their beneficiaries and their needs.

Engaging with Grantees

About one-third of nonprofit leaders say that the foundations that best understand their intended beneficiaries actively engage with their organizations. For example, one nonprofit leader says, “The foundation funders who best understand our beneficiaries’ needs are the ones who visit us during our programs, meet the youth served by our organization, spend time talking to them and being with them. They also stay involved with us throughout the year, and some even volunteer with our organization.”

Foundations’ Approaches

Around 20 percent of nonprofit leaders say that the way certain foundation funders approach their work sets them apart from funders who understand beneficiaries less well. These respondents say that the best funders approach their work with a sense of humility, openness to the ideas of grantees, and a sense of partnership with grantees.

Nonprofit leaders make comments like “Some funders seem to come into the relationship thinking that they know more than we do. Funders do probably spend more time reading academic literature, but they don’t spend time with low-income people. While they have much to teach us, we also have much to teach them. The best funders realize that.” 

Connecting to the Issues and Communities

About 20 percent of nonprofit leaders cite funders’ connection to the contextual issues facing beneficiaries and the communities that nonprofits are working with — developed through research, relationships with those working on or facing those issues, or personal experience.

As one nonprofit leader says, “[The best] foundations have consistent program officers who are knowledgeable about specific needs in our community and understand early-developmental issues.”

To read more from CEP’s research on nonprofit perspectives and practices regarding beneficiary feedback, see the full report, Hearing from Those We Seek to Help.

Ramya Gopal is a former associate manager, research, at the Center for Effective Philanthropy. 

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