Blogpost April 2017

by Lea Buck


How do foundations gather knowledge? Answer: They exchange knowledge with foundations

This February, the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation published the first quantitative research about knowledge accumulation in grantmaking foundations. 738 employees and board members of US grantmakers took part in the study[1].

It shows that the main source of knowledge in foundations is a direct exchange with colleagues and staff from other grantmakers. Conferences are second on the list, but conferences are also used to exchange knowledge with other foundations.

These results could imply that US grantmakers operate in a vacuum and only connect with comparable organisations, which might limit their ability to look beyond the boundaries of their own profession. But is this truly the case?

Remarkably, according to the Hewlett study only two thirds of the participating foundations accumulate knowledge through interacting with their grantees. Every three years, the Grantmakers for Effective Organisations (GEO) publishes research on grantee inclusion. The survey in 2014 concluded that only 53% of funders seek regular feedback from their grantees. Personally, I hope that this number will increase in the coming years to facilitate better communication and interaction between program officers and the civil society, who implement the sometimes abstract ideas of their funders on a daily basis.

The research above suggests that 40% of participants accumulate knowledge through external consultants. What are the implications[2] of this finding?

Do external consultants isolate foundations even more from the organisations working on the ground or can they help foundations to see the bigger picture and give a voice to those that might otherwise go unheard?

As a consultancy, we ask these questions ourselves, but believe that conclusive answers depend on the different approaches of consulting work, namely on how inclusive and participatory a consultancy operates. When analysing and presenting a topic area for our clients, we conduct interviews with a variety of actors. We not only connect with the direct target group and experienced organisations working in the field, but also communicate with scientists, public servants, associations and other funders. We firmly believe that this diversity is essential to gain a comprehensive and hands-on overview regarding a chosen topic. During the implementation process, we encourage our clients to enter into a dialogue with a variety of different stakeholders – we of course offer our support and guidance for these communications, but do also believe that funders need to get first-hand experience in the field.

A participatory approach is possible with all aspects of engaged and strategic philanthropic work – not only with dedicated research work. Consultants have the opportunity to fostering participatory approaches throughout their work.[3]. A direct example of this is for example the participartory design of the Hewlett study that initiates this blog post[4].


[2] An interesting answer to the question, what the study results mean for an organisation like CEP:

[3] As always, there are two arguments: it is undeniable that sometimes, consultants can indeed create a barrier between funder and organisations – this might even be the intention. We have had clients that need time to focus on their priorities and therefore some distances to the daily routines and requests that are not relevant to them. Often, as a result they will do more. We helped them develop clear criteria that make it easier to explain their grantee choices, which in turn also saves potential grantees from launching fruitless requests.

[4] Aaron Dorfman, NCRP: Finally, A Foundation-Commissioned Study that actually helps its grantees.