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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: Pop Quiz! What's Missing From Your Ecosystem? 

August 15, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

I almost always ask grantees what’s missing from their ecosystem. Understandably, they look at me blankly. Then I explain: What could other organizations do that would make your work have greater impact? No one organization can do it all, so what else should we support to complement your efforts?

It turns out this is a hard question for most people to answer. Everyone recognizes that creating positive social change takes varied skills and strategies, but people are focused almost exclusively on their own organization. Mostly, they want to expand the scope and scale of their own activities. It’s tough to endorse funding others when their own organizations never seem to have enough.

If you ask researchers what’s needed, for example, you often get a list of the research projects they themselves would like to tackle with available household survey data, rather than a wish list of types of data that would permit them to answer core questions with more precision and fewer assumptions, if only others were funded to collect and share it. If you ask advocates what would make it more likely for their work to make a difference in real-world policy, you usually get ideas about larger and more elaborate campaigns that their own organizations could undertake, rather than suggestions about funding more relevant research or enhancing the media’s ability to understand and communicate about their field. Organizations delivering health services or educating kids are more likely to highlight the need to cover larger populations instead of emphasizing the value of investments in new products, financing arrangements, quality certification systems, or the development of a stronger evidence base.

The ecosystem or field-level view is precisely what we try to have when we’re thinking about grant making. We can make the case for supporting a given organization not only because of its intrinsic importance or brilliance, but because it plays a distinctive role: the impartial source of cutting-edge analysis, the edgy advocate, the trusted insider. Few things make us happier than seeing different organizations we support spontaneously working together toward a common end, because it’s validation that we guessed right about the complementary nature of the work. And we are much, much more likely to make the right guesses—and contribute in the most high-impact ways—when we get advice from the trenches.

So, what’s missing from your ecosystem?