In order to stay relevant, focus on what matters, and do no harm, funders need to proactively and regularly seek candid feedback from the people they’re engaging most closely with on the work: their grantees, beneficiaries, partners, and other key stakeholders. Listening and learning needs to be a constant practice, preferably benchmarking feedback results against that of other funders and structurally tracking performance over time. This helps foundations to stay agile and adaptable, to keep program officers aware of actual needs, and to make sure that strategies achieve intended impact.

But listening and learning — let alone managing organizational change — is never easy, and having a growth mindset can be painful. It’s far easier to stick with what we know; listen to people we know, or who look and behave like us; and protect and preserve the safe bubble of the organizational culture that we’ve built and know best. This is at the very core of our behavior as human beings, and it is amplified even further when there’s no immediate external pressure. For foundations, there are no investors demanding profits, no money running out in the bank, no threat facing an organization’s existence. Without external pressure, humans tend to do what we’ve always done, unquestioningly, and focus inwards on the well being of people in our immediate environment (for foundations, inside their own organizations).

This is why philanthropy’s biggest asset — its complete freedom to be able to decide how and when to spend its resources — is also its biggest Achilles’ heel. Unlike other organizations, foundations can experiment, take risks, and be creative in using their resources to tackle the problems they focus on. At the same time, a lack of feedback loops or external pressure can lead to confirmation bias taking over and organizations acting in an insular way. As a result, in the worst of cases, foundations can operate like ivory towers out of touch with the realities they’re trying to change.

Read the full article about going beyond listening and learning by Charlotte Brugman The Center for Effective Philanthropy.