Engaging the Unusual Suspects

2013 (Issue 3)
Funders passionate about change in their communities often realize that their efforts are not enough. Engaging others—particularly those beyond the usual suspects—can be a next step to achieving greater impact.

What does it take to engage others? A group of Exponent Philanthropy members came together to explore the answers.

They began with this working definition of engagement: the process by which a funder identifies, reaches, and involves external stakeholders in efforts to advance its mission. And they defined unusual suspects as the people, organizations, networks, and systems not aligned with your goals but able to multiply your impact if an alignment or partnership were created.

For example, Exponent Philanthropy member Janis Reichmann of the Hau’oli Mau Loa Foundation has spent the past several years working in a close partnership with 10 nonprofits to bring hope to some of Hawaii’s most disenfranchised youth.

“The approaches used by our partners are reaching children who were previously very difficult to engage and challenged by typical classroom teaching,” says Reischmann. “Although we have been hesitant to engage with the school system given the many demands already on them and the complexity involved in working within a school system, we see real potential for expanding the success seen by our partners if we do.”

Likewise, The Fledgling Fund, an Exponent Philanthropy member foundation driven by the passionate belief that films can inspire a better world, is a proponent of extending its successes more broadly. Executive Director Sheila Leddy and her colleagues are compelled to go beyond the usual suspects to other funders who may not typically fund media, as well as to advocates and policymakers, to help them tap into the power of film. For example, for the past couple years, Fledgling has partnered with the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation to support outreach and audience engagement activities for film projects that support the Blank Foundation’s program interests.

Methods of Engagement



Our group of member foundations explored four categories of engagement.

One on one—The funder focuses on individual relationship building and influence through strategies such as:

  • Meeting with another funder to champion a particular grantee or strategy


  • Reaching out to a nonprofit leader to share best practices in the field


  • Talking with community leaders or elected officials about the impact of your work



One to many—The funder engages larger groups, or “pushes” information to others through strategies such as:

  • Creating a request for proposals that identifies a preferred strategy and priority actions


  • Commissioning research and disseminating the findings


  • Funding a publication to share good practices in one field with another



Many to one—The funder creates ways for others to reach the foundation, or “pulls” information from others through strategies such as:

  • Engaging field experts on a grantmaking committee


  • Convening grantees to learn about challenges and potential solutions


  • Hosting a chat room to generate discussion about an issue and identify ways the issue is framed among stakeholders



Many to many—The funder joins and informs group conversations and group efforts through strategies such as:

  • Funding the development of a shared vision across sectors


  • Using film as a call to action for diverse groups of stakeholders


  • Collaborating with other funders to help strengthen a field



Funders are typically most comfortable in one-on-one and one-to-many roles, but there is recognition among longtime practitioners that the many-to-many method may be the most promising and underdeveloped way of engaging others.

Good Engagement Practices



Most funders acknowledge that success in engaging others takes more than just understanding the previous strategies. It also takes determination, practical skills, and an open, adaptive mindset. Our group of funders puts it this way:


  • Successful engagement takes guts and grit. There are reasons funders don’t often engage the unusual suspects. It is likely to call on you to deliberately and persistently venture beyond your comfort zone. It might mean reaching out to people over and over who don’t know you—and therefore don’t return your calls. It might mean spending more time out of the office than you’re used to, in conversations with potential partners that may lead to detours or dead ends. It might mean taking a year or two to find the right partnerships, not “producing” much early on. And it might mean shifting your strategy midstream for the sake of a larger goal.


  • Successful engagement starts with conversation. People who effectively engage the unusual suspects often approach it as an evolving conversation. According to consultant Mark Sedway, who directed the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative that worked from 2005—2012 to help foundations and philanthropy associations improve outreach to influential Americans, collaborative inquiry can be an essential, sometimes the essential, ingredient to successful engagement.

    “If you want to engage people on an issue, start by asking them what they think about it,” he says. “It’s a simple but effective process. Segment the groups of people you want to reach. Then name names—a list of, say, the 50 people you really want to engage. Then interview them. What do they think about an issue? How could you work together?”

    A conversation strategy like this can often be more effective and more comfortable for funders than a campaign strategy, which may move you beyond your comfort zone too quickly.

  • Successful engagement takes adaptation. The steps to effective engagement are similar to the small moves made during a chess match. The best chess players modify their provisional plans in response to the other player. Likewise, effective engagement requires funders to make many small moves along the way, shifting and adapting as potential partners establish their positions. It may also call on funders to give up some of their pieces (i.e., their control) to achieve a greater goal.

    “In my experience,” says Exponent Philanthropy member Suzanne Hammer of The Pellish Foundation, “funders who succeed in engagement aren’t afraid of hearing no. They don’t take it personally and understand that being flexible and creative is the path to success.”

    Engagement Step by Step



    So what might the process of engaging the unusual suspects look like? We adapted a checklist developed by Mark Sedway for Exponent Philanthropy’s 2012 National Conference.

    • What is the issue around which we want to engage others? Why do we care about it, and why should they?


    • What outcomes do we want to see? Why is engaging others critical?


    • Whose thinking do we want to influence? What questions can we ask to better understand how they frame the issues and position themselves in the effort toward change?


    • What are the common points of interest? What small steps can we take to further build trust andmcommonality?


    • What types of engagement approaches are likely to be successful? What resources are needed and which are we willing to bring to the table? If we invest in these approaches, what may we have to give up?



    Engaging unusual suspects takes work, but the potential to multiply your impact is real.

    Our thanks to members of Exponent Philanthropy’s Impact Working Group and consultant Mark Sedway for this article.

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