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See from Others' Perspective: The Golden Principle for Foundations to Minimize Risk & Improve Impact

Does this sound familiar to you? You're expanding the grantmaking of your foundation into a new country, let's say China, but somehow the same strategies that have worked wonders in the U.S. seem to have lost their magic. Or, maybe you've been funding nonprofits to provide college access programs to low-income black adults, and you've seen amazing enrollment numbers. But now with a new focus to include Latinx or Native American adults, your time-tested approaches are suddenly becoming less impactful.

Why is it so difficult to scale grantmaking success?

Wouldn't it be a dream come true if you could foresee any hidden roadblocks before you transplant a solution from one geography/population to another?

In order to do that, there is one very simple, golden principle you can follow: make sure you see things from the perspective of others, especially the community and your grantees.

You probably already know about this principle. The trick is how to implement it. You will find three examples below to help you apply this game-changer.

Scenario #1: A city council that works to reduce racial disparities had long been struggling with community engagement. There was a lack of enthusiasm in the services they provided, and participation from the community was consistently low.

The reason for this was that the council members and the community had different understandings about the pressing issues in the community. By working closely with three community members for four months, the council was able to identify a list of high-priority topics the community was eager to tackle. Seeing things from the community's perspective uncovered opportunities to strengthen the relationship.

Scenario #2: An evaluator that collects demographic data was facing pushback. Evaluation participants questioned the design of the demographic categories and the value of collecting the data to improve equity. As a result, the response rate was low and the quality of the findings was jeopardized. The evaluator redesigned the demographic categories, but still, the situation barely improved.

The reason behind this was that the evaluator was thinking like an analyst rather than one who is living the situation. It's like a therapist who keeps asking a patient suffering from depression about their education level instead of recent life events. Yes, education level matters. A lot of research has suggested so. But the patient wants to talk about their grandma who recently passed away. Until the therapist (or the evaluator) starts to ask questions that matter to the patient (or the participants), the interest to participate and the data quality will both remain low.

Scenario #3: An international development fund tried to help a community affected by drought to recover. The fund gave sheep to those affected by the drought, hoping that keeping and breeding the sheep will bring a stable income to these households. However, many in the community did not keep the sheep, selling the sheep for dowry in order to marry their daughter into a good family, tuition payment, or to pay back debt.

The reason for these "surprises" was that the funder and the community had different ideas about desired life goals. If the funder saw things from the community's perspective, they could have created a more impactful approach that aligned with the community's worldviews.

What strategies have you been using to uncover the perspective of the community in order to minimize risk and maximize impact? Leave a comment below to share your experiences.


The example in Scenario #3 was originally shared with me by Jindra Cekan, a brilliant ex-post evaluator who, for decades, has been persistently asking the "so what" question to help funders improve their long-term sustainable impact. Regarding the example, Jindra pointed out that these "surprises" were also opportunities for the funder to reassess their definition of impact and to see a wide range of impactful results.

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