Connect More: How Lean Funders Develop Knowledge and Relationships to Catalyze Change on Priority Issues - Exponent Philanthropy
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Connect More: How Lean Funders Develop Knowledge and Relationships to Catalyze Change on Priority Issues

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How can foundation leaders best advance their focus areas? By developing extensive knowledge and insight. Leanly-staffed foundations hold a wealth of diverse connections with people in their communities, and they can leverage these relationships to gain knowledge and expertise. Insight helps these leaders identify gaps and solutions and address key issues in the smartest ways.

Connecting Across Sectors

Leaders at lean foundations (whether staff, trustees, donors, or family members) have relationships with local leaders, experts, and organizations in all sectors — civic, business, and public. Your reputation as a foundation or donor, and the fact that you have resources, gives you access to people with knowledge and insight. When you knock on people’s doors, they will most often talk to you.

Exponent Philanthropy members have reached out to and connected with city council members, mayors, legislators, journalists, authors, academic researchers, business CEOs, and more. Connecting with many people over time weaves what one catalytic leader calls connective tissue. It builds opportunities for collaboration and illuminates ways to make a big, systems-level change.  

How to Learn and Scan

The best way to learn is to get in touch with people who are knowledgeable about your issue — experts, but also people with practical, lived experience —and engage them in conversations. Invite them to coffee or breakfast, visit them, interview them, listen, and learn. Use your unique perspective across organizations and unique access to people with knowledge.

Leaders ask questions, take in lots of input and information, and create space for ideas and creativity. They engage people and invite participation. Leaders use a foundation’s power to be welcome in a lot of rooms and create a space for ideas and creativity. 

Ask questions such as these:

  • What have people tried? What has worked and not worked? Why?
  • What are the gaps and opportunities?
  • What would it take to move things forward?
  • What role can we play—as funders and as convenors, matchmakers, researchers, and advocates?
  • What resources can we bring— dollars, deep knowledge, relationships, convening power, our reputation, our voice?
  • Shall I act alone, or is there an existing coalition?
  • Which people need to come together, and under what conditions, to make the desired change?
  • Is the time ripe to act?

Moving Beyond Traditional Circles

As you engage and listen, intentionally seek out people beyond your usual, traditional circles. Bonnie Gonzalez, former CEO of Knapp Community Care Foundation in Texas, shares these tips:

  • Create trust and credibility with informal community leaders by getting out and visiting with those not spoken to. Look to the periphery.
  • Actively listen to those around you. Make eye contact and engage in listening to difficult discussions.
  • Visit and participate in meetings that are not the ones most people would attend.
  • Ask the hard questions and ask for input—even when you know you will not like the answers!

Commissioning Research

Foundations work with many different people and organizations, so they can gather data and make sense of patterns. Some leaders commission research about a problem or issue to inform their giving—something foundations have the freedom and capacity to do. Leanly-staffed foundations have funded studies of community needs, demographic trends, and other evaluations to pinpoint where they can make a difference. Some lean foundations fund research at the request of their grantee partners, to win public and private funding or do advocacy work; often this research is to document a need or measure the effectiveness of a new approach.

Make Outreach and Engagement an Ongoing Practice

It takes time to develop an understanding of a system; where it breaks down; or what new, promising solutions might be emerging. Also, if you engage grantees and community members over time and demonstrate an authentic desire to listen and learn, people will more likely be honest with you. And they’re more likely to share needs, gaps, and creative solutions that will never appear in formal grant applications.

By making connections to become knowledgeable about your chosen issue, you will also signal to nonprofits, government agencies, business leaders, and other stakeholders that you are serious about catalyzing change and that you value people’s knowledge and experience. By listening and becoming an expert, you will earn trust, and trust will help you develop the relationships essential to success.

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