If Knowledge is the Key, Then Just Show Me the Lock

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by Clare Nolan

Many years into my career as an evaluator, I found myself perplexed by a conversation I had with a foundation vice president. The conversation took place in the downtown offices of a local foundation, and our evaluation team had just briefed the funders on the results of a highly publicized anti-poverty initiative focused on one of our city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

I deeply respected this vice president and wanted so much to generate insights she could use to fuel her work. As the meeting concluded and attendees wrapped up their goodbyes, she turned to me. I expected a customary thank you but was secretly hoping for a deeper conversation about a finding she found particularly enlightening. Instead, she commented, “That was a useful evaluation, but I’d never share it with my board,” and curtly left the room.

That moment served as my initial crash course in foundation transparency. As I later came to understand, the funder was concerned that her board, and perhaps other funders, would no longer support investments in this neighborhood if they truly understood the difficulties of this work. While I appreciated her concern, I couldn’t help but wonder how much more impact foundations could have if they openly shared knowledge about challenges and promising strategies, both internally and with the broader field.

Although the report was never disseminated beyond this intimate briefing, eight years later it continues to be passed around secretly among public and philanthropic funders working in this neighborhood. This is because, while the initiative being evaluated had formally come to a close, new efforts with similar goals and approaches were being put in place by stakeholders who lacked historical knowledge of the neighborhood. The report offered practical insights into strategies to avoid, approaches to build on, and tips for more effectively engaging local residents and nonprofits that these stakeholders value.

At Engage R+D, we believe that knowledge has the power to spark change, but only if it is shared. And while we see that many foundations share our belief, and are taking steps to disseminate what they are learning, a lot of knowledge is still trapped in foundation offices. That’s why we recently partnered with the Foundation Center to produce a guide on sharing knowledge in philanthropy. Open for Good: Knowledge Sharing to Strengthen Grantmaking makes a strong case for foundations to openly share knowledge as an integral and strategic aspect of philanthropy. The guide provides:

  • a tool to assess a foundation’s culture and capacity for sharing knowledge,

  • concrete examples of knowledge sharing practices at different foundations,

  • responses to five common concerns that hold foundations back from sharing knowledge,

  • essential components and actionable ideas to strengthen knowledge sharing practice, and

  • recommendations for creating a culture of learning in foundations.

Evaluators too have a critical role to play, not just in sharing knowledge, but also in transferring it across organizations. We work with diverse nonprofits and funders to help them articulate social change strategies. We gather and compile data on how those strategies are working. We listen to community members to understand what they need and value. We partner with organizations to share findings through resources such as Issue Lab. And we design conversations to bring grantees, funders, and community leaders together to share and exchange insights.

The boundary-spanning role evaluators play makes us uniquely positioned to “unlock” and transfer knowledge and perspectives across people and organizations. We at Engage R+D look forward to collaborating with nonprofits, funders, and fellow evaluators to share what we are learning in our work. The scale and complexity of today’s social problems demand no less.

 

Thinking about how to share your knowledge? Here are some next steps:

Do a quick self-assessment of your foundation's knowledge-sharing capacity. 

 

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