At the opening session of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ recent conference, Dev Patnaik, author of Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, made the compelling case for philanthropy to develop a “gut-level connection” to grantees and the communities they serve. Patnaik posits that the extent to which we base our strategy choices on a deep understanding of what’s happening on the ground is directly related to grantmakers’ chances of making decisions that deliver meaningful results.
I couldn’t agree more. Called by a variety of different names – Dev Patnaik prefers “cultivating wide-spread empathy,” others use the terms “human-centered” or “user-centered” design – these concepts increasingly turn up in conversations about how philanthropy can have more impact. The idea is that grantmakers need to understand in an intuitive way what grantees and communities (the ultimate “users” of philanthropic products) truly need. Only then can philanthropy be certain that it is making investments and providing services that will deliver real results.
Many grantmakers are experimenting with ways to develop a gut-level connection to those they serve. Take the experience of the Stupski Foundation. Two years ago, they came to the disheartening conclusion that despite millions of dollars in support to try to reform public education in targeted districts around the nation, it was not getting a lot of traction. Rather than walking away and perhaps investing their energies in another field or a different set of goals, however, founders Larry and Joyce Stupski agreed it was time to think differently. They began experimenting with radical reforms that put the 21st-century learner at the center of educational change.
But creating a learner-centered system requires a fairly sophisticated understanding of the learner’s needs and interests. And so the Stupski Foundation invested in intensive ethnographic research in six school districts. They are now in the midst of an even more ambitious customer research study focused on understanding the explicit and tacit needs of school, district, and state leaders to help in the construction of solutions. In a presentation at the GEO conference, Stupski’s chief strategy officer, Nelson Gonzalez, said the research included focus groups and “deep interviews” with young people, plus countless visits to schools.
The goal of the research, according to consultant Erika Gregory of Collective Invention, Inc., was to “understand things people don’t tell you in a normal conversation.” She explained further: “Much of our knowledge about systems and what people need is tacit. It is knowledge you can’t draw out through direct inquiry, and so you have to engage in observational research.”
In other words, you have to go out and see things for yourself, unlock what’s really happening in the schools and communities where you want to make a difference, and try to get people to open up about their real wants and needs.
This is empathy in action. Whether you are working with third-party researchers and anthropologists or doing this on your own, the idea is to look at the world through the eyes of the people that your organization is seeking to serve. Grantmakers for Education recently adopted a novel approach to this challenge at a meeting where every participant adopted the persona of a young learner in the year 2025, complete with a fictional name and back story. The idea was to have the group envision some of the key characteristics of a learning system that could respond to every learner’s needs.
“One thing I found astounding about the experience was how quickly we got to a deep, shared and aligned view of what needs to happen,” said Gonzalez, who participated in the GFE session.
It’s a work in progress, but one that holds enormous potential to demonstrate the power of empathy to transform how philanthropy works – and what results we get in return for our investments.
There are a lot of grantmakers like the Stupski Foundation that are experimenting with new ways to engage with key stakeholders, new ways to figure out if their work is truly having a positive impact on the people they care about most, new ways of involving others in the design of better solutions and better programs. The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s YouthTruth project with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is another such example.
My question for you is this: How can philanthropy more effectively put those we hope to serve at the center of our work?
Kathleen P. Enright is President and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations
Disclaimers and Disclosures: The views expressed in the CEP blog by guest bloggers are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.