I’ve spent the past few months discussing the challenges foundations across the nation are facing. As I’ve spoken with foundation executives, I have come to realize that opportunities for funders to learn directly from peers are few and far between.
Yet, it has become equally evident that in order to fully address the complex and pressing social problems they seek to solve, foundations need to be in tune with the work of other funders in their fields. It therefore seems appropriate to ask, how can foundations really understand what’s going on around them? How can they map the ever-evolving topography of funding in their areas of interest?
One possible solution – scanning the philanthropic landscape – was highlighted in a recent Grantcraft report. The report defines scanning as: foundations “look[ing] at the field as a whole to see where the opportunities, needs, and gaps [for funding] are.” Scanning tools and techniques can help foundations understand what others are funding in a particular space, or the key needs and players in a philanthropic field. By extension, scanning can facilitate collaboration between foundations with similar strategies and goals.
Internally, scanning provides a platform for foundations to evaluate their strategies in light of existing funding. Individual foundations can use scanning tools and techniques to assess and improve their strategies in the context of an overall landscape composed of multiple funders, or between programmatic areas within their own walls.
While there are many different ways to conduct a scan, from having one-on-one conversations with other funders to enlisting the help of a philanthropic consultant or organizing convenings to discuss key issues in a field, the process of scanning traditionally involves disintegrated steps, which often result in one-dimensional learning.
However, innovative scanning techniques such as data visualization can allow for integration, manipulation, and interpretation of vast amounts of information such that a funding landscape can be seen and understood in multiple dimensions. When done right, an integrated, interactive scan can be the difference between a flat, printed roadmap from a corner gas station and Google Earth, where one can view various layers, zoom in, zoom out, see terrain in three dimensions, and map different routes using filters.
Admittedly, performing multi-dimensional scans can be easier said than done. For example, if a foundation wanted to determine how to have the greatest impact on K-12 education, the organization would face a field filled with hundreds of other foundations that collectively support thousands of grantees. Given the complexity of philanthropic landscapes, it is not hard to see how disintegrated scans based on one-off conversations or research can become daunting quickly.
However, as the Grantcraft guide points out, new tools that allow for more continuous, detailed, and centralized access to information about funders’ work are tackling the challenges of landscape complexity and catalyzing increased interest in the utility of scanning. Unlike traditional tools that enable static scans of a single point in time, these dynamic and customizable tools have expanded how funders can capture and build knowledge. The Strategy Landscape Tool, an online data visualization developed by the Monitor Institute and being offered by CEP, is one of these new scanning tools, and it has potential to change the way foundations understand their work and share information with peers.
The Strategy Landscape Tool allows funders to scan an entire field or geography, easily seeing and understanding grantmaking strategies and patterns within their organization and other institutions. Armed with this comprehensive view, funders can make strategic decisions in pursuit of their goals.
Though CEP has been working on the tool for less than a year, we already know that it is helping foundations better understand their own work. Multiple funders have reported back to us that they have used the Strategy Landscape internally as a training tool for new program officers, or to show their boards the evolution of a funding strategy over time.
We are also excited by the potential of the Strategy Landscape to catalyze funder-to-funder communications, leading to better collective decision-making. Strategy Landscapes have been used by groups of funders that have common goals and seek to share data, increase the transparency of their giving, and collaborate. A participant in one Strategy Landscape shared that the tool helped build relationships among funders in its field of giving: After only a few months, a group of foundations that had never previously communicated with one another began having weekly calls, which led to regular convenings to discuss specific action items. Our experience is confirming the Grantcraft guide, which stated that, “scanning does more than gather data – it makes connections.”
As scanning gains prominence in philanthropy, I’m excited to know that foundations are looking beyond simply making “good grants” to making the right grants – ones that are sensitive to the existing needs and funding realities in their fields. But that can only happen when funders and collaborations have invested resources in developing strategies that are fully informed by knowledge of the philanthropic landscape.
Mendi Blue is a Manager at the Center for Effective Philanthropy.