How to stop making assumptions and accelerate community-led change


Hannah Lee


This article is part of a series of articles about Community-Led Philanthropy, co-hosted by GlobalGiving. The conversation explores the ways philanthropy can support community-led change. 

Assumptions – making decisions without proof – can be dangerous in philanthropy. When funders assume what communities need rather than continually listening, revising processes and shifting support based on localised feedback, it reinforces a power dynamic that further inequity. To better respond to and meet the unique needs of partners, philanthropy must listen first and continually check assumptions. 

I am learning this firsthand at the Cognizant Foundation as we make investments in organisations working to ensure communities are prepared for the job of today and tomorrow. This is especially important when working within education and workforce ecosystems – to further economic and social mobility, we must work alongside organisations and employers to better understand localised needs and industry demand.

When Covid-19 began to spread in the U.S., many of our partners that were delivering in-person education and training opportunities within K-12, higher education and workforce development were forced to transition their programs online overnight. 

As we discussed what the foundation’s response should be, we initially assumed our partners would need to provide participants with hotspots, laptops and monetary stipends to continue progressing in their education. However, after surveying our grantee partners, an even greater need emerged – mentors, social capital and community-building opportunities due to social isolation. 

Had we not surveyed and truly listened to the needs of our partners who know their populations best, we would not have been able to tailor our support and response effectively. As a result of listening and collecting data, 82 per cent of our grantee partners took advantage of additional support and flexibility, which increased on-the-ground impact and allowed them to provide more meaningful connections for their participants. 

So, how do we as funders stop making assumptions and accelerate community-led change? 

Listen first – and continue to listen throughout the duration of a partnership. Needs and data can shift quickly. I recently explored the topic of trust and listening in Philanthropy News Digest, sharing an example of good intentions gone wrong because of a lack of listening responsiveness. 

Check yourself – constantly check your implicit biases to ensure you are not making assumptions based on stereotypes or preconceived notions. The 10 Essential Questions for Philanthropic Grantmaking, Policies and Practices by Associated Black Charities are a helpful tool to check individual and institutional assumptions and rethink the ways we operate to ensure community feedback is centred across policies and processes. 

Build trust through transparency – if funders expect data and transparency from community partners, especially in times of change, we must lead by example. PEAK Grantmaking has developed a how-to guide for funders to build transparency into practices and policies to help narrow the power gap and build true partnerships. 

Create mechanisms for feedback – and act on that feedback. Continue to adapt strategy in real-time. As Covid-19 continues to have an inequitable impact on communities, this framework from Feedback Labs supports organisations in collecting feedback for short-term recovery and long-term resilience to help accelerate true community-led change.  

As we continue to operate in a landscape shaped by Covid-19 – and an unequal recession and recovery – we must not make assumptions. Instead, funders must build trust-based partnerships with grantees and centre feedback to ensure community leaders are equipped to make the greatest impact in their communities. 

Hannah Lee is a director at the Cognizant Foundation, where she leads strategy development and grantmaking efforts across the United States, with a focus on building equitable pipelines and pathways into technology jobs and addressing systemic barriers through policy.

Tagged in: Community-led philanthropy

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