How foundations listen to the people they seek to serve: A field scan

woman listening

As part of an effort to elevate beneficiary voice in our philanthropic practice, the Hewlett Foundation commissioned a field scan, conducted by Valerie Threlfall and Rebecca Klein of Ekouté Nonprofit Consulting, to examine how other funders are trying to systematically gather and use feedback from the people their grants are intended to benefit. In this interview, Carla Ganiel of the foundation’s Effective Philanthropy Group talks about the new research.

Why did you commission this field scan of foundation “beneficiary” listening practices?

The foundation has supported efforts to elevate beneficiary voices for a number of years through Fund for Shared Insight, a funder collaborative dedicated to enabling individuals served by nonprofits nationwide to share their perspectives. To date though, most of the nonprofits supported through the Fund for Shared Insight have focused on direct service. Over the last few years, we’ve had an increasing sense that we could and should be doing more to incorporate listening into our own strategies, some of which involve direct service but most of which are focused on systems change. We commissioned the field scan as a starting point to help us understand what other funders are doing in this regard and how we can improve our own listening practices. We hope it will be useful for other foundations as well.

What do you mean by listening to beneficiaries?

We define listening as efforts to consider the views, perspectives and opinions of the people and communities the foundation seeks to help for the purpose of incorporating those perspectives into strategic considerations and decisions. This might mean gathering direct feedback from young men and women in West Africa about attitudes and behaviors related to contraception and taking those views into account when making grant decisions.

Why is listening important?

Foundations are motivated to listen for a variety of reasons, which are described in the scan. For us, I think it comes down to our core values of humility and inclusion, our belief that we don’t have all the answers. We trust our grantees to be our partners in collaborative problem solving because they bring different experiences and perspectives to the work. But we also need to extend that same trust to the ultimate beneficiaries of our grantmaking who not only see the problems we’re trying to solve from yet another perspective but are also most affected by the decisions we and our grantees make.

What did you learn from the scan?

There’s a gap between intention and practice. Research from the Center for Effective Philanthropy commissioned by the Hewlett Foundation shows that a majority of foundation CEOs believe listening to the people and communities they are seeking to help has the potential to strengthen their foundation’s impact but are concerned that actual listening efforts are limited. Ekouté found that this can be especially true for large national and international funders, especially those that focus on systems-level strategies. As one representative of an international foundation noted, “[T]he failing here is for our team to actually walk the walk rather than just say we have these principles.” At the same time, there’s hope that more and better listening can begin to shift behaviors, and there are bright spots at foundations of all sizes, types and areas of focus.

Are the scan’s findings consistent with what you see at the Hewlett Foundation?

Many of our programs are focused on systems-change at international, national, or regional scale. At the start of this project, we didn’t have a thorough understanding of whether and how program teams already engaged in listening, so we conducted an internal scan in tandem with the external one. From our internal scan, we learned that most program staff could articulate who they saw as the ultimate beneficiaries of their work, but it wasn’t always clear how they could gain actionable insights to inform field-building efforts, policy work, and other systems-level strategies. At the same time, we were pleasantly surprised to see that there is more listening happening than we were aware of. For example, our Environment team has visited with tribal leaders, ranchers, and outdoor sport enthusiasts to better understand their views on conservation in the western United States, and the Education team commissioned public opinion polls to learn more about what people expect from the public education system.

Also, we began with the assumption that strategy origination and refresh efforts were prime listening opportunities. That turned out to be true. For instance, the Performing Arts Program conducted six listening circles to inform their recent strategy refresh. But there was even more listening happening during strategy implementation, ranging from casual approaches to more rigorous and systematic ones. We heard, for instance, that the Global Development and Population team listens in barber shops in east Africa and Mexico, employs human-centered design in family planning clinics in Zambia, and uses the Afro-Barometer, a representative survey of 34 African countries, to understand what people are saying about the services their governments provide.

Are some ways of listening better than others?

Yes and no. Some ways of listening are better for certain purposes. We can listen directly through site visits, convenings, listening circles, or social media. We can listen indirectly with grantees as intermediaries or through polling and other research efforts. None of these methods is inherently better than another. They can all serve different purposes at different stages of a strategy lifecycle. For example, according to the new study, funders often engage directly with beneficiaries during strategy a strategy refresh and then listen indirectly through grantees during implementation.

What’s next?

In the coming months, program teams will experiment with new ways of listening. We hope that teams will find ways to become more intentional and systematic about some of their ad hoc listening efforts and that they will pilot some new activities as well. Over time, we’ll work with teams to reflect on and share what they’ve learned from these pilots.

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