How Three Funders Cultivate Better Understandings of their Fields

This post delves into findings from CEP’s report, Lessons from the Field: From Understanding to Impact, a series of case studies that provides an in-depth look at how three foundations work to cultivate an understanding of the fields in which they work — and then turn that understanding into more effective grantmaking. This post originally appeared on the blog in December 2010. It is reposted here as part of our Rewind blog series.

At CEP, we are always looking for ways that our data can help foundations forge stronger relationships with their grantees and become more effective in their work.

Our research shows that when a foundation’s staff exhibits a high level of expertise in the field in which it funds, that expertise usually results in stronger relationships with grantees.

But how exactly do foundations gain that strong understanding of these fields? We know that in the busy lives of foundation staff, it can be difficult to carve out enough time to understand the fields in which they are making grants. What are the best sources for information? How do program officers develop the necessary knowledge to advance their work? What does understanding the field really mean?

We decided to ask staff at three foundations that had participated in CEP’s Grantee Perception Report® (GPR) and were ranked at the time in the top five percent of more than 200 foundations according to their average grantee ratings on the survey item: “How well does the foundation understand the field in which you operate?”

Our case study, Lessons from the Field: From Understanding to Impact, provides an in-depth look at how these three different foundations cultivate an understanding of their fields and then translate that understanding into more effective grantmaking.

The three foundations — the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, the Energy Foundation, and the Wilburforce Foundation — want to make an impact on some of the most complicated challenges we face: civil rights, renewable energy sources, and wildlife protection.

When we interviewed them, staff at these three foundations told us how understanding their fields helped them make better decisions and avoid costly mistakes. For example:

  • Listening to stakeholders in California led the Haas, Jr. Fund to reshape a communications campaign on immigrant rights so that it took into account important regional differences.
  • A deep understanding of Chinese culture helped the Energy Foundation pilot a groundbreaking plan to significantly reduce air pollution, which the Chinese government has adopted nationwide.
  • Some extra research helped Wilburforce discover that it needed to cultivate a key constituency group in order to protect one of the largest intact rainforests on earth.

The foundations also offered very different examples of how they develop and maintain an understanding of the field. For example:

  • At Haas, Jr., understanding the field means that the foundation seeks to develop the capacity of their staff and grantees to be leaders in their fields.
  • At Energy, understanding the field involves staff developing close working relationships with experts in the field and connecting grantees with experts to enable problem-solving.
  • At Wilburforce, understanding the field means knowing as much about the people living and working near the areas it seeks to protect as it does the flora and fauna residing on those lands.

We hope that our case study provides useful ideas to foundations seeking to better understand the fields that they fund, and we welcome your feedback. The case is available for free download here.

Ellie Buteau is vice president, research, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @EButeau_CEP.

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