Soaring interest in diversity, equity, and inclusion: How funders seek and use knowledge

In 2020—a year rocked by a racial reckoning and the inequities of the global pandemic—diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) rose to the forefront of issues that were most of interest to funders.

In a new study of how U.S. foundations find and use information about effective philanthropy, DEI emerged as the leading topic of interest for funders—a significant change from 2016, when a similar study was conducted and DEI didn’t even make the list. While the shift is notable, it is consistent with the actions many foundations have taken over the last year in response to George Floyd’s murder and increased calls for racial justice across the United States.

One major finding from 2016 endures: Foundation staff continue to rely on their peers and colleagues, as opposed to particular organizations or publications, as their preferred source for knowledge about the practice of philanthropy. Even so, funders reported that they typically use an average of six sources, with digital media, conference sessions, newsletters, and grantees topping the list. They also note that peers often serve in a curation role, pointing colleagues to relevant information at organizations and publications.

The new study, commissioned by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and conducted by Engage R+D in partnership with Equal Measure, builds on the earlier research and helps further describe how funders are using information and resources from sector researchers, media, and peers to inform their thinking and practices. The study was conceived in partnership with the foundation and its grantees who are focused on producing and disseminating independent, high-quality knowledge to inform and improve philanthropic practice.

The findings in the report have many implications for both knowledge-producing organizations as well as foundations, according to Lindsay Louie, who served for 8 years as Hewlett’s program officer overseeing these grants. “The increased interest in DEI practice—combined with the prominence of peers as a ‘go to’ source—suggests funders who want to bring more diverse perspectives into their work need to be much more intentional in their knowledge gathering and sources,” she said.

The field scan included a survey of foundation staff with 1,502 respondents, more than double the previous survey; and 20 interviews with a representative sample of foundation staff and board members. In this study, 14 of the sector’s major knowledge producers and disseminators collaborated on this shared measurement approach and included their audience email lists in the survey respondent pool. Here are some of the key takeaways from the report:

Diversity, equity, and inclusion is a priority for funders, but specific interest in the topic varies

Nearly two-thirds of funders reported seeking knowledge about DEI, more than any other topic, which is not surprising given increased public and philanthropic attention to racial justice. While interest in this topic was high across respondent groups, some respondents to the survey—namely female and BIPOC foundation executives, staff from larger foundations, and staff from community and independent foundations—were more likely to state interest in DEI than other respondents. Evaluation staff members were also more likely to report interest in DEI than people in other staff roles; 90% of evaluation officers selected DEI.

So, what specifically about DEI do funders want to know? In interviews, funders discussed a broad range of topics that reflect different stages of the “DEI journey,” from those having initial conversations internally, to those rethinking different organizational practices, to those trying to make their grantmaking more equitable and increase grantee voice and power.

Some interviewed funders note that one challenge in addressing DEI at foundations is that existing information about DEI in philanthropic practice lacks depth, with a need for more nuance regarding how funders can support equity. They also emphasized the necessity of community voice and lived experience to inform DEI efforts.

Funder interest in evaluation and assessment remains high, along with organizational development, grantmaking, and strategic planning

There was some variation in interest in these topics by foundation type and staff position. Staff in larger foundations reported more interest in “systems” topics, including DEI, evaluation, and organizational development, whereas staff in smaller foundations reported greater interest in “functional” topics, such as grantmaking, governance, and trends in giving.

Peers remain a cornerstone source of knowledge, but funders seek out a range of other sources, too

In 2020, 89% of respondents reported seeking knowledge from peers, with 80% relying on external colleagues, and 56% reaching out to internal coworkers. This finding is consistent with 2016, when 92% of respondents reported peers and colleagues as a main source of knowledge about the practice of philanthropy.

There are several reasons for seeking out knowledge from peers. For one, peers’ experiences are relevant because they understand foundations’ inner workings. Also, trusted peers who are further along at developing a philanthropic practice make logical resources for funders wanting to make similar changes. In interviews, funders also underscored the value of peers for quick access to information, which has been especially important in the face of so many new challenges and decisions during the past year, and spoke of trusting people and sources with which they had past experience. One funder said, “[The source is] someone that I know and have worked with in the past whose judgment I trust and who knows me and my work well enough to curate for me.” Interviewees also referred to the external reputation of the source. For DEI practice knowledge, community voice, and lived experience are key indicators of quality for funders.

The survey asked respondents to select any of 12 main knowledge sources, and funders selected an average of six—including peers and five others. Nearly two-thirds of funders report relying on digital media, conference sessions, newsletters, and grantee interactions.

Further, in interviews, funders noted potential limitations of overly relying on peers. One commented, “To the extent that these peers and colleagues don’t represent a diverse set of opinions and perspectives, that would be a problem.” Funders acknowledged the importance of proactively seeking diverse sources and perspectives on philanthropic practice to go deeper on a topic and gain different perspectives.

In-person conferences were the second source after peers in 2016. In a year when a global pandemic led to the cancellation of large in-person events, in-person conferences were cited by far fewer respondents in 2020 than in the earlier study. But funders continue to express positive views of conferences, noting in interviews the benefit of bringing practice knowledge to life through multiple perspectives and real-time interaction.

Digital media is growing as a tool and source for knowledge-seeking

Funders’ use of digital media, such as web searches, blogs, webinars, SlideShares, videos, and podcasts, to find practice knowledge increased from 38% on the 2016 survey to 65% in 2020. At the same time, email newsletters, while still a popular source of knowledge, decreased from 77% to 64%. The COVID pandemic may have played a role in pushing people online, but this trend also parallels the long-existing shift to digital reliance and increasing quantity of information available online.

Funders are familiar with a broad range of knowledge producers but less familiar with their content

Consistent with the 2016 survey, funders noted that they had heard of a number of knowledge sources, but were less familiar with what they actually produced.

Knowledge is most useful when timely and actionable

Similar to the 2016 research, funders who were interviewed in 2020 commented that they have a lot of knowledge and information flowing at them and find it helpful when knowledge resources are timely and actionable. They expressed a preference for framing, content, and format that are easily digested and/or adapted to a specific context. One funder said, “I’m beyond the point of where I’m really interested in lots of discussion about what the issue is and more interested in a discussion about how we can address this issue.” Another said they want materials that are “practical and easy to consume. It’s a combination of research and practice, but there’s some real-world applicability.”

Applying knowledge: how practice knowledge informs and influences the practice of philanthropy

Most funders use knowledge to improve current practices, consider a new practice, question a practice, or compare their foundation to the field. These practices can relate to all aspects of philanthropy from operations and programs, to work with grantees, to strategy and decision-making. Here again, how foundation staff apply knowledge varies by different respondent types including age, gender, foundation type, and foundation size. Staff from larger foundations and community foundations were more likely than others to consider new practices. While executives overall were less likely than other staff to consider a new practice, female executives were more likely than their male counterparts to do so. Younger staff were more likely than older staff to consider a new practice or to compare their foundation to the field. Overall, 85% of funders report adopting a new practice or being in the process of doing so, up from 72% in 2016.

2020 crises demonstrate how external changes can be important stimuli for influencing foundation practice

The 2016 study highlighted that shifts in the external environment can be important to facilitating changes to philanthropic practice in foundations; having the knowledge resources to support a change is often not enough on its own. 2020 has been a year of unprecedented external changes, including the COVID-19 pandemic and its many ripple effects, as well as the groundswell of attention to DEI and systemic racism. One change in practice cited by interviewees in this study, and illustrated in other research as well, is the easing of grant proposal and reporting requirements and making more flexible grants.

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