Hewlett Foundation Publishes Study on Use of Philanthropic Knowledge

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation recently published a report that examines the ways in which funders and foundation staff respond and adapt to new information and knowledge. The Hewlett Foundation has been a longtime funder of organizations working to create and disseminate such knowledge across the philanthropy sector, including the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nonprofit Quarterly, The Bridgespan Group, the Center for Effective Philanthropy, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, and The Philanthropy Roundtable. Although Hewlett understood the numeric reach of these grantees through subscriber and visitor metrics, they wanted to have a clearer picture of their real-world effects.

Hewlett brought in two outside firms to conduct a collaborative field scan, compiling information across 11 major knowledge producers and publications in philanthropy. The field scan included a survey of 738 funders and foundation staff, interviews with 75 board members and funders, and four in-depth case studies. The 738 survey respondents were affiliated with 528 staffed foundations. Thirty-seven percent worked for independent foundations, 32% family foundations, 28% community foundations, and 3% corporate foundations. The size of the foundation ranged from one staff member to 50+. Half of responding foundations gave less than $10 million annually.

Their research yielded the following findings:

  • Foundation staff primarily seek knowledge from their peers and colleague (92%), followed by conference (83%), newsletter (77%), and interaction with grantee (67%).
  • The survey asked participants o list their trusted sources of information. No specific organization, association, or publication was cited as a trusted source by more than 25% of respondents.
  • Funders are overwhelmingly interested in learning more about evaluation and assessment (44%). No other topic was identified as critically needed by more than 5% of respondents.
  • nders tend to feel overwhelmed by the volume of provided information.
  • Knowledge lone does not result in change. While information can help encourage a new idea or practice, it must be accompanied by a wide variety of other factors including trust, accessibility, peer and leadership support, and organizational readiness.

hese findings illustrate that knowledge production tends to be driven through largely informal processes such as conversation and email exchange. There is no paramount source of information; funders gather knowledge from a wide variety of sources and publications. Funders have a strong desire to become more outcome-oriented, but struggle to effectively measure progress and results. Although funders have a desire to use knowledge to inform their philanthropic practice, they often feel overloaded by the volume of provided information. And finally, the study demonstrates how information must be accompanied by institutional support to result in substantial change.

Read more at the Hewlett Foundation and the Stanford Social Innovation Review.