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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Infrequently Asked Questions 

July 25, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

A commonly voiced critique of foundations is that our goals and strategies are hard to understand. Fair enough. Many of us could do a better job of explaining ourselves.

Within the Global Development and Population Program, we’ve certainly found it difficult to describe our strategies in compelling and concise ways. Each line of grantmaking has its own logic, specific to the subject matter as well as to the niche we believe can fill within a community of nonprofits, official agencies, and other private funders. We can and do write down the theories of change underlying our grant choices, but even with the presentational polish—Look! Boxes and arrows!—these are less like architectural drawings and more like sketches roughed out in the midst of construction. Our written strategy documents, let alone the text on our website, rarely give a full feel for what we do or how we think about it.

The challenges we face are not unique to foundations. They’re shared by virtually everyone whose work involves any degree of abstraction. Once one gets beyond an enterprise that can be described as, “We buy textbooks for schools in poor communities” or “We vaccinate children,” you’re in the land of abstraction – and it’s tricky terrain to navigate with bullet points. Just try to put “women’s economic empowerment” or “transparency and accountability” into plain language.

This problem is compounded when a foundation or any other organization covers a broad scope of subject matter. The unifying thread can seem banal—“we make information available to improve lives” —and understanding the strategy, activities, and intended outcomes requires real time and effort. We certainly don’t expect to figure out the strategies underlying our grantees’ work just from reading the documents available on their websites.

So what to do?  We rely on that most old-fashioned form of communication: conversation. To understand the strategy of a grantee or prospective grantee organization, we ask questions—a lot of them. What are you trying to do in five years, two years, next year? Whose actions are you seeking to change? Why do you think that’s possible? How do you know you’re heading in the right direction? What do you see as the major obstacles? Where do you see the overall field heading? And those are just the warm-up—there are many more. In hearing the answers to all those questions we start to understand the thought processes behind a nuanced and dynamic strategy. It is so much more satisfying than reading any strategic plan or website copy, no matter how well written.

We’d be happy to have the tables turned on us, but honestly it just doesn’t happen very often. While we systematically consult with experts, including current and potential grantees, as we’re developing new strategies, typical conversations with grantees and grant-seekers have a different feel. In part because of the intrinsic power dynamics of funder-grantee relationships, and in part because prospective grantees often want to hear only enough about our strategy to ascertain whether their work is a fit for it, we just don’t get that many questions about our strategies during those conversations—and no, “When is the proposal due?” doesn’t count.

When current or prospective grantees do inquire about our strategic direction, they seem quite satisfied to hear a superficial answer. We almost never see a quizzical look, let alone hear questions like, “When you talk about policies that affect women’s economic empowerment, are you thinking about active labor market policies like job training, or macroeconomic policies that expand growth in sectors that tend to employ women?” It’s those sorts of questions that uncover the thinking behind the words, and help explain why we might fund one project or organization and not another.

The cost of having a conversation where only one side is asking questions is high. We’re not getting enough feedback on whether our strategies makes sense to others with different perspectives and experience. In the absence of specifics, people may spend time proposing work that we’re unlikely to fund. We get comments through anonymized surveys that we are opaque, and we spend hours writing and rewriting website text that in the end doesn’t clarify much at all.

Am I asking for an inquisition in every conversation? No. But I am suggesting that there is only one way to truly understand why we do what we do: Ask.