Strength in numbers: Taking a field-level view

hands holding jigsaw pieces

Editor’s note: This is the second of six reflections by Ruth Levine, as she approaches the end of her eight-year term as Director of the Global Development and Population Program. The first was “Closing the Gap Between Social Movements and Policy Change.”

One day in 2002, when I was at the Center for Global Development, I looked out of my office window and saw our Hewlett Foundation program officer jaywalking her way across Massachusetts Avenue from a neighboring think tank. I knew she was coming to CGD’s offices for a meeting about a current grant, but I wondered what meeting she was coming from. A quick Google search gave me the answer: the think tank on the odd-numbered side of the street also had a grant from the Hewlett Foundation, for a program of work that sounded remarkably similar to ours.

Why, I wondered, would a foundation fund two groups to do such closely related work? Why, in particular, would it fund groups that were on a daily basis trying to best each other in the quality of ideas, the strength of research methods, the number of mentions in the Washington Post, and the attendees at book launches? Why buy Coke and Pepsi?

The mystery deepened when I learned that the foundation wasn’t just funding work at two think tanks, but was in fact supporting at least two other groups working on similar projects. Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up, and Sprite! Why would a foundation spread the money so thinly? Why wouldn’t they just give it all to us? What would make them love us most?

Nine years later I found myself in California, and learned about polyamory. No, no, not in my personal life! But in my professional life, and in a platonic form. Now on the funder side of the table, I quickly came to understand that loving lots of organizations that do related work is precisely what a foundation does. The underlying logic of that became clearer—as did many of the complications, from the side of both the funder and the funded.

The tactical unit of action for a foundation is the grant award—a transaction that defines a relationship with one nonprofit organization. A grant has a shape: a size, a duration, and a focus, whether it’s to support everything an organization does or just one stream of work. From any one nonprofit organization’s perspective, that may be all they see or experience.

But for a foundation like ours, the strategic unit of action is a field, like the field of international reproductive health and rights or the field of development economics, the field of environmental conservation, K-12 education, or performing arts. Within a field, a foundation is trying to put together a combination of investments that are all contributing to a defined outcome that is recognized within the field as being important. That might be, for instance, protecting women’s ability to choose whether and when to have children, or making it more likely that economic and social policies will be informed by excellent evidence.  Taking that field-level view, program staff know that no one organization, no matter how impressive, will be able to make big change happen and stick. A whole constellation of organizations, both ones that are peers and ones that have different roles, are needed.

What I didn’t know, back there on Massachusetts Avenue, was that the very fact that the Hewlett Foundation was funding many peer organizations should have given me more faith, not less, that the support would continue. What felt like a threat of competition was actually a signal of enthusiasm. When program staff see, for example, that one policy research organization or one advocacy group is having a lot of success, they start to imagine how much more might be possible if there were a whole family of similar grantees.

For a funder, many benefits come from spreading one’s bets.

First, the competition keeps people on the top of their game. On the grantee side, I certainly remember the motivation that came just from looking across Massachusetts Avenue.

Second, debates and varied perspectives spur interest and innovation. In our work in the Global Development and Population Program, for example, we support organizations that include MIT’s J-PAL, IDinsight, the International Initiative for Impact Evaluation, the Network of Impact Evaluation Researchers in Africa, Twende Mbele, AidData, and several other groups that have a shared aim of making sure that intensive evaluation efforts result in better programs and policies. They do their work in very different ways; and, yes, they don’t all get along with one another, sometimes tussling over methods and positioning. Across it all we’re hoping that we learn more about the most effective ways to reach the goal. This is not about who wins and who loses, but how everyone in the field learns from the experiences.

Third, there’s a practical reason to fund multiple organizations working in similar ways: it’s unwise to put all your eggs in one basket. Even the strongest organization today can undergo a leadership change or other shock to the system that can leave it less effective tomorrow.

Finally, but certainly most importantly, the opportunities for greater impact through collaboration can be vast, even when the organizations look more like substitutes than complements.

For example, we support the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Reproductive Rights, which work in many similar ways to protect the reproductive freedoms of people in the United States (yes, it’s a pretty tough job these days). They reinforce each other’s arguments, and together they cover more territory than either could alone. We also provide funding to Southern Voice, a remarkable network of think tanks from low- and middle-income countries that engage in collaborative research projects to connect the global commitments of the Sustainable Development Goals to country realities. The bond they have together, and the ability to understand, learn from, and refer to each other’s work increases their visibility and impact.

It is for those reasons that when we’re thinking about how to make progress toward our strategic goal, we often look at supporting a constellation of organizations—some similar, some different. This mode of working—conceptualizing grantees’ work as pieces in a larger puzzle—has demonstrated advantages, but no shortage of complications, as well.

Spreading bets creates complications, too.

Being on this side of the funding equation, and also remembering the experiences on the other side, the complications are clear. Any nonprofit organization has its own mission, which is unlikely to be in complete alignment with any one foundation’s strategy. From the organization’s perspective, it’s not a puzzle piece whose form and function is defined by someone else; it’s an entity infused with its own unique motivation and agency. That’s one way in which the concept of a foundation strategy and the reality of nonprofit life are in tension.

The second tension has to do with the fact that most nonprofits are supported by a range of funders. If each of those funders is executing on its own strategy, developed without deep consideration of what other funders are doing, it’s likely that organizations feel pulled in multiple directions at the same time. This isn’t about the burden of too many reports and too many monitoring indicators, although surely that’s a problem. It’s the deeper question of how nonprofits deal with being pushed and pulled by the very funders who depend on them to do the real work.

Observing all this, I’ve come away with some personal views about ways in which outcome-focused philanthropy should be practiced, informed by the values of the Hewlett Foundation.

Our strategies need to be more like a path through the woods than a paved highway with no on-ramps and no exits. They have a direction and a starting place, and we find our way by being alert to what’s around us and matching our abilities to the obstacles. Sometimes we lead along the path, and a lot of the time we follow others—sometimes other funders, but often the organizations that are doing the hard work.

We need to remember that we are one of many sources of financial support, and rarely the largest or the smartest. Sometimes this means following other funders because they’ve got the better ideas. Sometimes it means trying to influence them because they’re heading down the wrong path or getting in the way of their own success by making unreasonable demands. Sometimes it means providing flexible funding so that the nonprofit organizations can make the best use of restricted support from others.

We need to articulate and share the logic behind our grant decisions. This starts with having a written, publicly available strategy document, but goes far beyond it. We need to tell the organizations we are funding where we see the alignment between their work and our strategy, as specifically as possible. And, whenever feasible, we need to demonstrate the opportunities and value of collaboration across the organizations we imagine to be part of some larger whole, and provide the flexible support to make that collaboration possible.

And for nonprofits? Had I known back then what I know now about a foundation’s field-level view and strategic ambitions, I would have let go of the jealousy about my program officer’s multiple partners. I would have been brave enough to ask about the underlying concept of the portfolio within which my grant fell and where my organization fit. I would have looked with more eagerness for opportunities for meaningful collaboration with other grantees. I might even have introduced other organizations in my own field to the program officer, secure in the knowledge that some for others wouldn’t mean less for me. There might just be more love to go around—and maybe it’s a good idea to love thy neighbor as thy self.

Read the third reflection: All happy grantees are alike: They focus on ideas, interactions, and important details >>

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