Funders Rely on Peers for Knowledge to Inform Practice, Study Finds

When seeking knowledge to inform their philanthropic practice, foundation staff and board members turn to their peers as their most trusted source of information, a report from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation finds.

Based on interviews, surveys, case studies, and a literature review, the study, Peer to Peer: At the Heart of Influencing More Effective Philanthropy (71 pages, PDF), found that peers and colleagues are the most "trusted" — described as honest, open, and discreet — source of knowledge about philanthropic practice, with foundation staff saying they turned to peers at other foundations and board members saying they relied on internal staff. Indeed, informal interactions with peers and colleagues (cited by 92 percent of survey respondents) topped the list of primary sources of knowledge for funders, followed by conferences (83 percent), email/newsletters (77 percent), and grantee interactions (67 percent). While social media (24 percent) ranked near the bottom of the list, the report noted that it eventually may become a more important channel, given that it was cited by 27 percent of program staff, who tend to be younger, compared with 17 percent of foundation leaders.

When asked in an open-ended question to list their top three "practice knowledge needs," 44 percent of survey respondents mentioned evaluation and assessment, far exceeding other needs, including grantmaking (14 percent), advocacy (12 percent), and information sharing (11 percent). More specifically, funders said they frequently sought information about the impact of their grants; the factors that cause some charitable investments to be more impactful than others; and technical assistance with respect to assessment techniques and implementation. In addition, 80 percent of foundation staff surveyed said they use practice knowledge to challenge or affirm current practices, while 55 percent said their organization had adopted an idea or best practice in the last two years.

Conducted by Harder+Company Community Research and Edge Research, the study also found that while funders were aware of organizations, associations, and publications that produce knowledge about philanthropic practice, they tended to be less familiar with the actual content. Asked to assess the current state of practice knowledge, majorities of survey respondents said it was relevant (68 percent) and timely (61 percent), while smaller percentages said it was guiding the thinking of the sector (51 percent), is vetted and works (46 percent), and/or is duplicative (43 percent). Many respondents also said they felt overwhelmed by the volume of incoming information in their e-mail inboxes, which may explain, in part, why funders turn to peers as trusted curators of information.

"For a product to produce change, it must be part of an organizational process that includes organizational readiness and staff and leadership support," the report concludes. "A creative, well-documented, and relevant product can start the process, but the concepts presented can take their own non-linear path as the new-to-that-foundation innovation is diffused."

"Peer to Peer: At the Heart of Influencing More Effective Philanthropy." William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Press Release 02/13/2017. "Peer to Peer: At the Heart of Influencing More Effective Philanthropy." William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Report 02/13/2017.