Where Does Good Strategy Start? Listen Up.

Crystal Hayling

This post, part of our Blog Rewind series, originally appeared in December 2010.

When I was fresh-faced and just starting to work in philanthropy at a women-focused community foundation, I made lists. I would write down the problem or issue I wanted to tackle, then make a list of reasonable solutions. For example:

Domestic Violence:

  1. Make it a crime
  2. Lock up the criminals
  3. Get women legal services for safety and to pay for the divorce
  4. Provide counseling for the kids
  5. Get mom a job

Then I would look at the money I had available (never enough) and divide it equally among each of the reasonable solutions. Confident I was doing all I could to address the problem of family violence, I talked earnestly with the Board of Directors about the importance of our “multi-faceted” approach. (Now, that word looks quaint, but trust me you used it a lot in the 80’s too.)

Next, I would turn to the giant map of Los Angeles we’d hung on the wall and divided into what we called neighborhoods, but which were really more economic descriptors than geographic locations — South Central L.A. (Compton, but not Ladera), Westside (Venice, but not Santa Monica), Hollywood (but not West Hollywood).

We would push pins into the places where we made grants — red for violence prevention, blue for economic development, green for arts, etc. — and we aimed to distribute those pins fairly and evenly from the San Bernardino mountains to the shining sea.

I did due diligence — financial assessments and site visits — on every organization that received a grant. We gave project but not general operating support. And we considered ourselves partners with the groups we funded.

And that’s how we did it.

This was what we called our strategy if someone had asked us that question, which really no one ever did. Far more frequently, what people wanted to know was “why should I give to a women’s foundation?”

Why I could talk about passionately:

  • Because the status of women is a barometer of equality in any society;
  • Because if women flex our giving muscles to demand that solutions have a gender lens, we will develop better solutions;
  • Because women are the backbone of financial decisions in most families and communities;
  • Because well-educated women give a lot more of their joint wealth to their husbands’ alma maters than they do their own;
  • Because sisters are doin’ it for ourselves.

The list went on and on.

At the core of the answers to “why?” was a belief that women didn’t want to be saved. Women wanted tools to make good decisions for themselves and their families. Women wanted the opportunity for hard work to result in something more than 63 cents on the dollar.

And that belief saved us from ourselves. It put us in partnership with the (mostly) women’s organizations we funded. Over the years, those partner nonprofits joined our grantmaking committee and our Board of Directors. They challenged our approach — why not general operating support? They challenged our funding partners — can Virginia Slims buy a table at an event? (Uh, no.) Their staff members wrote checks contributing their hard-earned dollars to the Women’s Foundation because they felt like we were all part of the movement. And they helped us to understand how to prioritize “solutions” by telling us which ones mattered most in which communities, which ones were dead wrong in others, and how to add ones we’d never thought of ourselves.

We practiced an early form, I think, of what Peggy Saika called “democratic philanthropy.” Now not every foundation is willing or able to be as fully participatory, but it makes a huge difference if you can be. I learned, in those early years, that folks did not take kindly to the notion that their communities or their lives were problems to be solved. By starting from a place where we stated our “why” values and listened to theirs, we found we were in alignment. And that alignment allowed us to be on the same side of the table in determining “how.” And even working through massive disagreements on “how.” But that’s what partnerships are about.

In short, we found that good strategy starts with listening. And not just sporadic listening, but listening that is built into the processes of our grantmaking. If we understand how our grantees see the world, it makes us smarter, better partners. 

Crystal Hayling is founder of C2 Projects and a member of the CEP Board of Directors. Follow her on Twitter at @CHayling

beneficiary perceptions, developing strategy, foundation strategy, rewind, strategy
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