Expanding the Network of Who We Listen To
In the Hewlett Foundation’s Knowledge for Better Philanthropy strategy, we fund the creation and dissemination of high-quality knowledge regarding philanthropic practice for foundations. We recently released an evaluation of the strategy entitled, How Funders Seek and Use Knowledge to Influence Philanthropic Practice. In this study, 89 percent of funders report their peers (internal and external colleagues) as one of their primary sources for knowledge about the practice of philanthropy; that’s consistent with our earlier research. Peers aren’t the only source funders cite, but funders in our study highlighted the value of peers who understand foundations’ inner workings and serve as practical examples for making changes in practices. At the same time, funders acknowledged the risks and limitations of peers – in particular, that such a reliance on peers can limit diversity of perspectives and resources.
As I finish my eight-year term at the Hewlett Foundation, I’ve been reflecting on which conscious and intentional efforts have helped me to seek out diverse perspectives, meet people outside of my natural networks, and fund organizations with varied approaches to effective philanthropy. Our 2013 evaluation of the Knowledge strategy called for an effort to support more diverse voices and perspectives. True to that call to action, most of the organizations we’ve newly funded in this strategy are not ones I already knew. I learned about them by being open and intentional in meeting new people and spending time in diverse spaces. This includes providing support for the First Nations Development Institute, CHANGE Philanthropy, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, ProInspire, and Equity in the Center. We have also supported deeper internal and external diversity, equity, and inclusion work by the Stanford Social Innovation Review (the “This is What Racism Looks Like” and “Breaking Through Barriers to Racial Equity” series) and the Chronicle of Philanthropy (DEI source audit).
It’s clear that diversifying staff and boards of philanthropic institutions ensures that reliance on peers will represent a broader range of views and perspectives. For example, when I joined Hewlett in 2013, the staff was more than two-thirds white. Today, that figure is 49%. But these aren’t the only ways to intentionally include diverse perspectives. We have to systematically build this inclusion into our design and strategy development processes.
Fund for Shared Insight, a national funder collaborative that includes Hewlett, has put forth powerful efforts to expand networks that funders (and nonprofits, as well) listen to as they shape their strategies. Shared Insight aims to ensure that funders systematically collect and use input from people closest to their work. One of my most influential experiences on this front came earlier this year, when I represented Shared Insight in a participatory design team charged with providing input for the parameters of a participatory grantmaking process. Our only starting parameter was to focus on climate change in the United States, a focus area chosen because it is such a critical one to the planet. Some Fund for Shared Insight core funders have a lot of experience with climate philanthropy whereas others have none, but this project gave us all the opportunity to work together and to center the people who are most affected but often least heard. The effort grew out of Shared Insight’s interest in expanding our listening and feedback work to include funders and organizations working in advocacy and policy. We commissioned a landscape scan from the Aspen Institute which helped us identify participatory philanthropy as an approach to take in this new work, paving the way to both shift power and center people with lived expertise.
Each of my twelve design team colleagues were individuals with lived expertise around climate change, ecological disruption, and/or traditional ecological knowledge (in addition to other areas of professional expertise and experience). They come from communities that have been historically excluded from policy decision-making, such as BIPOC communities and rural and small-town communities. As part of the design process, I had multiple one-on-one conversations where we discussed and weighed in on different aspects of the grantmaking design. For me, these personal interactions were the highlight of the process, because I was able to learn more about the lives and perspectives of people from so many walks of life – people that I wouldn’t ordinarily connect with in my day-to-day work or through my existing networks.
I had a phone call with a church pastor in the South who was also a lifelong climate advocate and organizer. My second call was with a young woman who was home from college during the pandemic, living on the Native American reservation in South Dakota where she grew up. Her passions include indigenous health, wellbeing, and food systems. I also spoke with a visionary nonprofit leader and climate activist from the Twin Cities in Minnesota. Each brought essential perspectives to what grantmaking needed to be done. To this day, I can hear other design team members in my head – their provocations for what is needed from philanthropy and from this grant round – to define climate work in ways that will resonate with communities most impacted by climate change, to center equity and justice, and for philanthropy to do more. You can read more about each of the design team members here.
We started with plans to dedicate $1 million to one participatory grant round, but my fellow design team members challenged us to raise another $1 million or more to do participatory grantmaking focused on climate justice in two regions – the U.S. South and Hawai’i and Alaska together. As a funder representative in the group, I heard this request to raise another $1 million and played a role in successfully championing it to my colleagues. And I hope more funders will join this effort. I am confident that the participatory grant round ahead will focus on real work that needs to be done, and it will be because people with lived experience of the impacts of climate change in their lives and communities will have guided it there.
While the aforementioned specific design team was focused on creating the guideposts for a participatory grantmaking process to follow, similar design teams could be utilized by funders in many other ways to ensure that the voices of people closest to the work help shape and influence other grantmaking processes. For example, if you are reviewing a strategy or starting a new one, a team and structure like this could provide input on any combination of past work and future focus. In my experience, this is not a tool funders commonly make use of, yet this participatory process reiterated to me how do-able and valuable it is. Indeed, bringing together diverse perspectives is a central part of the Hewlett Foundation’s Outcomes Focused Philanthropy. Our Education team listened extensively to inform its K-12 Teaching and Learning strategy refresh a few years ago. This included reaching out and receiving feedback from parents, teachers, students, as well as groups that we had not funded in the past and those who disagreed with our previous approaches to education work. Our Performing Arts team took a similar approach in recent years to widen the circle of who provides input to inform its approach to San Francisco Bay Area Arts Funding.
It can be hard to try new things and move outside your “comfort zone” and typical ways of working, and even harder to share power and control when you’re used to having a monopoly. While it is understandable that funders often lean into habit and routine in their day-to-day work, my experiences as a member of Shared Insight’s participatory design team have been powerful reminders of the importance of breaking out of comfortable habits and existing networks to experience new things and share power with others in service of creating a more equitable world.