After four years of being the Ford Foundation’s person “on the ground” in South Africa in the 1980s, I was well informed about the people and ideas driving the anti-apartheid struggle. I knew not only what was written in news, research, and proposals, but also the cultural signals that are so important to how people interact – where they lived, the cars they drove, who they partied with, and most importantly, the everyday challenges they faced. And I knew when I was gaining trust and understanding not because people told me – it is a truism that funders can’t take any compliment at face value – but because my role was evolving. Instead of sending me finished proposals, I was being invited into internal strategy discussions where new proposals were developed. 

Most of the time as individual donors we don’t have the Ford Foundation’s capability to commit people on the ground to look under the hood of the issues we seek to address. So how might we find other ways to work through our misapprehensions of the needs and desires of the people we are trying to help?

Well, we know that those misapprehensions are fed by the limitations of distance, of our own cultures, by the biases that influence our beliefs. As philanthropists, we begin by recognizing that we are all, to a varying extent, blind to the myriad ways we impose our views on others, and misunderstand their views and capabilities.

One way to correct for these limitations would be to have better published information. My proposal aims to get institutional funders and their grantees to change their approach to reporting in ways that both improve their work and provide individual givers with access to better information. Accordingly, my proposal comes in the form of a simple – it has to be simple or it won’t scale – modification to public reporting practices. 

Next month, I am going to share some stories from people whose ability to transcend their own biases is legendary, and also show how my proposal here, which is aimed mainly at institutional philanthropy, can be adapted for individual givers.

I humbly propose that organized philanthropy and implementers publish quarterly reports with two data points. These apply to all intervention strategy types, from direct service to research to advocacy.

The data points derive from answers to two questions posed to those you seek to help, directly and indirectly  – your grantees and those ultimately meant to benefit. They speak to effectiveness and trust. 

  1. Does my organization help in the ways you want?
  2. Would you let my organization know if we were about to make a mistake?

How to administer these questions in a way that will generate reliable answers will take more space than this blog allows, so let’s just imagine for now that it can be done easily and inexpensively. The questions need to be asked anonymously so that people are not pressured to be polite or incentivized to pander. Ideally, it would be undertaken by an independent third-party and funded by funders, which would alleviate the nonprofits’ reporting burden. A compelling case in point is the Net Promoter Score model, which reinvented the customer satisfaction industry by using a single question: How likely would you be to recommend…? My organization can share all the how-to details of our adaptation of the net promoter model for philanthropy.

If these two data points were to become the common public reporting infrastructure for philanthropy, then strong systemic incentives would reward philanthropists and implementers for listening and responding in a way that was authentic and meaningful for those they mean to help. This would accelerate progress on intended outcomes such as improved well-being, increased incomes, better public health and education stats, and enhanced food security. It would create a new cycle of philanthropically funded problem solving that could in time replace the current ineffective model most accurately described as top-down ships passing bottom-up ships in the night.

I welcome feedback on this idea and would love to hear other suggestions to inculcate intellectual humility and distributed power in philanthropy. More next month with my proposal for a “humble inquiry app” for individual givers.