gayle's blog

Learning and Community Change

"Power never really goes away when money is involved. But we could minimize this. When we approach people with an offer of support, knowing they know how best to use it, then we can talk about how to help them. Now some of the dynamic has shifted and opened space for authentic conversation."
-Interview participant John Esterle, the Whitman Institute, 2013
This is unique moment in time. There is a growing movement calling for a greater democracy in giving and a growing ease in public scrutiny of high-profile philanthropy. At the same time, there is enormous economic and ethical value in partnering with the people whose lives foundations are trying to improve. This community commitment must become a core value within philanthropic organizations, as well as an easily implementable set of strategies and practices if openness and learning are to be achieved. Ignoring the opinions of real people whose lives funders seek to serve and improve is neither good social nor business practice.
For the past two years, pfc and a team of partners have been on a quiet, but important journey to understand how 1,000 leaders in the field of social investing work with, and for, the communities they seek to serve. Our research has been designed to test the viability of seven key leadership strategies culled from the business and social sectors, which we collectively call the Seven Cs of Deliberate Leadership(c) Our research and conversations with leaders in North America and around the world has allowed us to see trends-openings and barriers-to making community-based learning an actionable reality.
Whether in Mumbai or Minneapolis, Silicon Valley or Sao Paulo, Detroit or Dubai, Lagos or Los Angeles, our findings are consistent. They also cut across types of funds/investments: corporate social responsibility, impact investing, public sector, or intermediaries. Some key insights include:

Adopting service leadership values makes a difference. Leaders and organizations that develop a culture and strategy embracing beneficiaries as clients and customers tend to be more impactful. Putting people at the center of the strategy based on what they need and want, rather than what the funder believes they need, is hard but increases the likelihood of success. As Buddy Philpot, CEO of the Walton Family Foundation likens community members to customers and refers to the Walton family's brand of philanthropy as one of servant leadership based on honesty, deep respect, and common sense people-to-people connections that result in the strong relationships among staff, grantees, and community clients. This strategy yields the greatest results, and the Foundation continues to look at new ways to make sure community voice is heard throughout the grantmaking process, not just at inception and closure of grant initiatives.

Building feedback loops early and using them often yields stronger results. Feedback loops are best when well-worn. There are several stages of development, but they all begin with the commitment to candor and openness modeled by the funder. Feedback loops are only reinforced when they result in visible change, no matter how small or large.  It is a skill that can be learned and one that improves with practice.

Recognizing that only organizations with a living, breathing culture of openness and candor internally can be successful in building healthy and productive relationships externally with NGO partners and customers. A cultural commitment to candor and learning is critical to giving more than lip service to feedback loops. A healthy learning organization fosters trusted collaboration, which in turn yields openness, transparency, empathy, and creative synergy. An organization with a closed culture internally will have a closed culture externally. In our work, two foundations emerged as innovators in fostering openness and strong community relations. For example, The Denver Community Foundation has taken an unusual approach to working with and for community by having staff live and work in the communities it serves. Social workers and community organizers have a natural pulse on needs and attitudes of their communities through weekly visits and on-going community forum.

Understanding that the consequences of not building trusted authentic relationships with communities are lack of impact, wasted resources, tarnished relationships, harm done, and invaluable learning opportunities missed. Not handling the relations with partners wisely and respectfully has a long-term impact that takes time and resources to repair. The mistakes of one funder can be imprinted at the community level for many years. The McKnight Foundation, for example, works through more than 50 intermediaries to give up power and build a pipeline for feedback and change. Additionally, staff training materials outline the importance of meeting with community members to conduct a 'reality check' on proposals and verify that there is alignment in everyone's goals and values. Staff understands that their actions have consequences and do no occur in a vacuum.

Moving beyond imagination to reality to foster openness across the philanthropic spectrum will require a multi-pronged approach. This includes not only research, the creation of a new body of knowledge, and teaching and coaching to show funders not only ways to build feedback loops, but also guidance on how to build a strong culture of openness within their own organizations. As Mike Roberts of the First Nations Development Institute shared with us, "Culture matters. World view matters. You can't take philanthropy and its value system and use it outright without adjustment to the self. The outside system has repeatedly failed in our community. But we know our [community and organizational] values will lead to success. Our results in community can translate to philanthropy, and speak and demonstrate great grantmaking."

Creating Knowledge Tools and Access for Effectiveness
Perhaps the most important lesson of our research has been that examples of both success and failure in listening to the grantee and impacted community tend to remain in silos in their sectors, in their geographies, or within their communities. We have found that there is a need for both more consistent documentation and for a targeted and creative communications strategy that enables these ideas to become part of the conversations leading US philanthropy into a new landscape of openness.

All of our research (regardless of program) feeds into what we call the Good, Evil, Wicked series of tools and guides pfc is designing to cultivate the communications pathway between foundations and their intended communities of impact. The cornerstone of this project is Good, Evil, Wicked: The Art, Science, and Business of Giving, a self-financed book that will be published by Stanford University Press in 2016. Other elements of this project will be a case study series, a white paper series on lessons from philanthropy in emerging economies, and a website that supports community insights and sharing.

Resources for Practitioners

pfc's intention in crafting the Good, Evil, Wicked resources is not just to share what we are learning, but also elevate this new knowledge to serve as models for others working at all levels to advance prosperity. As trainers, educators, and advisors in the social change sector, our team is committed to going beyond a collection of stories to create a project that offers data, personal reflection, recommendations and guidance, and, ultimately, a new and highly scalable model for approaching funder-grantee-community interaction.