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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Ideas + Money = ? 

June 20, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

Grant makers are very good at asking questions. We ask prospective grantees about everything from theories of change to potential leadership transitions to progress indicators. And while we’re tireless in expressing curiosity about grantees’ work, we do not spare ourselves from interrogation. We continuously ask ourselves and our colleagues:  Why these priorities? Is this the right strategy? The right set of tactics? Could we get more impact if we allocated dollars differently?

Healthy as all this questioning is, I have to admit: Sometimes I find it exhausting. After all, this isn’t just an academic exercise.  Our job is to make grants and to learn from them so we make better grants the next time around. Somehow, we have to get from questions to actions.

That’s why I’ve started to think about grants as ways to test hypotheses—statements of our belief that money spent in a particular way will yield a particular result. Scientists use hypotheses to translate big questions into discrete experiments, and to focus their attention on whether what happens is what they expected to happen or something else entirely. If grant makers think in terms of hypotheses, it permits us to ponder without becoming paralyzed.

If you’re still with me:  Each grant represents an educated guess. Only through observing how the grant plays out do we figure out if our guess was mostly right or mostly wrong. The guesswork is unavoidable because we operate within a context of tremendous complexity and uncertainty. We don’t know, for example, whether the political and economic environment is going to be friendly to what we’re trying to achieve. We don’t know what combination of building evidence, supporting advocacy at elite or grassroots levels, supporting innovative organizations, and funding demonstrations activities is going to result in meaningful progress.

So we make our educated guesses, and we observe. 

Thinking about a grant as a hypothesis has helped me identify what we should be trying to observe and how we’re going to learn. To test a hypothesis, you have to look for both the evidence that confirms your beliefs and the evidence that might challenge them. That second part—looking for the things that will prove you wrong—is the hardest.  But it’s also the most important, and the most informative. We should always try to disprove our own hypotheses, so that we learn whether our strategies were, in fact, good ones.

Let me take one example:  We’ve made a series of grants to help ensure experts from the Global South have a hand in setting the post-2015 agenda—defining the international development goals that the member states of the United Nations are expected to adopt in September 2015, as a successor to the Millennium Development Goals. The hypothesis underlying those grants was that participation of public intellectuals from Africa, Asia and Latin America would help ensure that the goals are better informed by on-the-ground realities, are more reflective of the priorities of low-income countries, and are seen as having greater legitimacy. 

We might well be wrong. It’s possible that scholars from southern think tanks and heads of non-governmental organizations in Dar es Salaam or Kathmandu are no more in touch with on-the-ground realities than people sitting on Massachusetts Avenue in Washington, D.C.  It’s also possible that funding people to attend meetings and undertake research, or to write blog posts and op-eds, makes their ideas more visible but doesn’t change the fraught negotiations at the United Nations.

So as we watch these grants unfold, we’re not just looking for the evidence—although there is plenty of it—about the broad and diverse “conversation” about the post-2015 development agenda, some of which has resulted from our funding. We also are training a skeptical eye on that evidence, and questioning whether any real difference is resulting from all the input. We are pushing ourselves to challenge our own hypothesis. What we learn will help us decide whether to make future grants to increase the influence of southern civil society organizations on international policy, and how to best structure them.

There’s one other great benefit of thinking about grants as testing hypotheses.  In science, no experiment fails if you’re able to learn something from it. People in our line of work could take a lesson from that.