The Necessity of Understanding Need

Jennifer Glickman

It’s no secret that working in the nonprofit sector is a challenge. Many organizations are strapped for resources, and staff are often overworked and working for less money than they could get at a for-profit company.

So why do people do it? Many who choose the nonprofit path will tell you they chose it because they want to help people. They want to tackle issues that plague particular groups or populations. They want to make the world a more equitable, livable, and all around better place.

For me, working at CEP provides an opportunity to broadly and systematically improve nonprofits’ ability to provide their services and, consequently, increase their impact. Having previously worked at a direct service nonprofit, I know how difficult it can be to fundraise to keep the lights on while simultaneously giving your all to the students you tutor or the families you house. I feel proud that, by providing research and insights to foundations, I can help those service organizations get the necessary support to better help individuals, groups, or issue areas in need.

Because, when it comes down to it, all nonprofit work is about need of some sort. And you can only address needs — whether they are the needs of an organization, a community, or a population — if you truly understand what they are. 

The necessity of this understanding may seem obvious for the types of organizations I already mentioned. Those working with students must understand the areas in which those students need the most support; those working with homeless families must understand the most helpful resources they can provide to get those families back on their feet.

It feels equally important that funders have this understanding as well. After all, how can you know what to fund to achieve your goals — or even develop useful goals in the first place — if you don’t understand the needs of those you are seeking to help? 

For some foundations, applying the resources and time to develop that understanding may seem daunting. Many would like to invest more in this task, but don’t know where to start. Fortunately, learning from the work of other foundations can help.

In a new report CEP is releasing today, titled Staying Connected: How Five Foundations Understand Those They Seek to Help, we explore the practices of five foundations rated highly by their grantees for their understanding of their beneficiaries’ needs. The report covers a variety of topics with foundation executives and program staff from the Nord Family Foundation, Helios Education Foundation, the Duke Endowment, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, and SC Ministry Foundation, including:

  • What they specifically do to develop an understanding of the needs of their intended beneficiaries;
  • What role the grantees they work with play in the development of that understanding;
  • What challenges they face in developing or maintaining an understanding of beneficiary needs; and
  • What advice they would give to other foundations that want to become better at understanding their beneficiaries.

Through answers to these questions, we learn that there are a few common practices among these highly rated funders. Namely, they all take the time to listen and learn from the grantees doing the work on the ground, recognize the importance of going out into communities themselves, and find value in hiring staff from the fields in which they fund.

To learn more about what each foundation does to develop and maintain an understanding of those they ultimately seek to serve, you can download and read the report here.

Jennifer Glickman is manager, research, at CEP. Follow her on Twitter at @JenGlickman.

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