I was struck by a September 29th blog post written by Chris Langston, program director at the John A. Hartford Foundation in New York City. In his post, Chris asks for suggestions from “grantees, stakeholders, peers, and older persons themselves” about how the Foundation can “make the biggest difference in the lives of older adults” with the $100 million it plans to spend between 2013 and 2017.
He specifies that, at this point, the Foundation wants to “discuss the nature of the problem of health and aging and the broad societal forces that seem likely to be relevant.” He goes on to explain why he believes it is so important to focus on the problems at hand before turning to strategies or grant ideas.
Much of CEP’s research, as well as our conversations with leaders in the field and clients, touch at one point or another on the complex yet crucial issues of communication, goals, and strategy. The challenging nature of each of these only increases as we consider the power dynamics that often exist between funders and the nonprofits they support, as well as the growing economic needs in our society.
The John A. Hartford Foundation’s experiment of seeking suggestions from such a wide variety of stakeholders about which problems it should be addressing through its funds – and of seeking them through social media – is one attempt to mitigate the power dynamic and hear directly from those closest to the problems at hand. So far, Chris’s post has received over a dozen comments containing suggestions, which have arrived steadily since the post appeared.
Chris’s post reminded me of several elements that have arisen in our research at CEP about what distinguishes more strategic leaders from less strategic leaders. Through our research, both qualitative and quantitative, CEP has developed and applied a definition of strategy. The first component of that definition focuses on foundation leaders who seek and consider information and data about the relevant populations, issues, communities, and fields when they are making decisions about how to use the foundation’s resources to achieve its goals. That means not relying solely on what the foundation already knows, what the board’s preferences are, or what the foundation has done in the past.
In our research, both with private and community foundations, we find that strategic leaders seek information from a variety of stakeholders when developing their strategies. In that context, Chris’s invitation to beneficiaries of the foundation’s work (i.e., older adults) to contribute suggestions also stands out. The inclusion of beneficiaries in input and feedback processes has been the focus of increasing conversation in philanthropy – in books, on blogs, in op-eds, and in CEP’s research. Today, though, the practice of seeking beneficiary voices is not a common occurrence.
As the John A. Hartford Foundation moves forward with its work, it would be helpful to learn how the input received from constituents shapes the thinking there, and what the ultimate decisions turn out to be. More broadly, I wonder if the Foundation’s openness to seek input in such a public forum will spur other foundations to take risks on similar efforts.
The John A. Hartford Foundation is by no means the first funder to open itself up in this way. In 2007, for example, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation solicited, through a wiki, suggestions for developing strategies to address nitrogen pollution.
Still, such efforts to invite input from a variety of relevant constituents remain far too rare. I can only wonder what the consequences of such lost opportunities have been for foundations making progress toward their goals.
Ellie Buteau is Vice President – Research at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.