Those Who Should Matter Most

Are funders listening to those who should matter most? Are funders listening to those whose lives they seek to improve?

In my last post, I discussed the new report from Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), Do Nothing About Me Without Me. The report calls for funders to engage stakeholders more frequently and substantively in their decision making.

But who are the right stakeholders?  Over the past decade, CEP and GEO have both emphasized the importance of hearing from grantees and, given that they are the ones on the front lines doing the work to help funders achieve their goals, that makes a lot of sense.  To think you could devise and implement a sound strategy without hearing at regular intervals – in a rigorous and candid way – from grantees is the height of hubris.  I am proud of the role CEP has played in bringing the grantee perspective to funders.

But funders have tended to pay less attention to rigorously collecting the perspectives of those stakeholders for whom the stakes are highest: those whose lives a funder seeks to improve.

Admittedly, for some grantmakers, this is difficult, at best.  If your goal is to protect an endangered species of wolves, your options are limited.

But if you are, say, trying to improve the quality of human services available to recent veterans, shouldn’t you ask them what they need? 

Or, if you are trying to improve outcomes for students in America’s high schools, shouldn’t you understand how students are experiencing those efforts?  In fact, if you understood that there was a link between changing student perceptions and changing student outcomes, might you have a crucial leading indicator by which you could manage and gauge progress?

That’s what CEP is exploring in an effort called YouthTruth, developed in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and now also funded by the Stuart Foundation.  So I was pleased to see the GEO report’s emphasis not just on grantees, thought leaders, and internal constituencies such as staff and board, but also on local community members.

“Engaging the people you intend to help or the representatives of the communities you serve is essential to learning how you’re doing as a grantmaker,” the report argues.   Our YouthTruth initiative involves surveys of high school students and the delivery of Beneficiary Perception Reports to school leaders, districts and education networks, and funders.  We have designed the process to be one in which students understand their views will be taken seriously; this isn’t another “fill in the scantron sheet” with your No. 2 pencil experience.

Lucy Bernholz, Ed Skloot, and Barry Varela describe YouthTruth in the following way in their report, Disrupting Philanthropy: Technology and the Future of the Social Sector:

“[YouthTruth] inherently recognizes the value of the ‘end user’ experience. It … equips students with the data if they want to use it, while also pointing them to other resources that might help them improve their schools. This type of evaluation turns ‘subjects’ into ‘actors.’ It changes the dynamics at every level—from when data are collected, from whom, how they are used, and who can analyze it—at a cost that is negligible when compared to traditional approaches.”

The early results of YouthTruth are encouraging (a formal evaluation is underway), with school leaders making many different types of changes on the basis of what they learn. For a flavor of what schools learn, watch this video, produced by MTV, that is played at kick-off assemblies at schools before students take the online YouthTruth survey.

We are hearing that this data is seen as extremely powerful by school leaders.  But we have yet to see if the data will be used to inform funder decisions about strategy and strategy development.  More on that in my next post.

Phil Buchanan is President of CEP.

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