7 learning strategies for a more humble philanthropy

Want the magic secret to shifting power in grantmaking? Humility is step one. And steps two through 2000.

A lot of waste and missed opportunities happen when funders misunderstand context or local needs

Traditional methods of philanthropy often lean on inherently racist, colonial systems, which assume that grantmakers are the experts. And beyond reinforcing harmful power dynamics, this lack of humility gets in the way of real impact.

So what can you (and me and pretty much everyone in philanthropy) do about it? You could start by recognizing your own biases and position of power as a person with resources. Next, you should get comfortable with sitting back and listening and let a local community lead the conversation. If that sounds overwhelming, we get it! But we also believe in you. Let’s tap into the curiosity that brought you to grantmaking in the first place, and begin there.

Go to the people. Learn from them, start from where they are, work with them, build on what they have. But of the best leaders, when the task is accomplished, the people all remark: ‘We have done it ourselves.

– Lao Tzu

”It took me so long to stop thinking that I needed to have the solution, but I’ve learned again and again that ‘development goals’ aren’t going to make a difference, unless local communities are the ones who create them. Building partnerships is a much more honest look at social transformation.”

- Patty Curran, Executive Director of Partners Asia

Make learning a key outcome of your grantmaking

Beyond individual humility, learning should become part of your funding strategy too. In most sectors, research & development (R&D) is an expected part of the budget and understood as vital for innovation. Adopt that R&D spirit as you dive into a new region or issue, or approach any grantmaking initiative. The first dollars you invest should all be dedicated to learning, and this ethos of curiosity can guide every step of implementation.

Commit to your own curiosity

We know that funders who come to the table with humility are able to support more impact in communities.

Taking the time for deep listening helps you understand the issues and make more effective decisions. And centering your relationship with local leaders around learning and mutual respect creates a real, long-term partnership — the kind of collective power that ultimately makes change possible.

Learning strategies for individuals

  • 1

    Become a student again

    Pick up your pencils and dust off those notebooks. Humility starts with you, and the care you bring to your own learning. Some do’s and don’ts for getting started.
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    Pick up your pencils and dust off those notebooks. Humility starts with you, and the care you bring to your own learning. Some do’s and don’ts for getting started:

    • Do understand your goals / Don’t approach philanthropy as a one-time project.
      Take time for self-inquiry. What are you hoping to get out of grantmaking? What does being a “funder” mean to you?

    • Do approach a community with humility / Don’t assume you’re the expert.
      There’s a long history of funders with good intentions ignoring a community’s agency and lived experience. This leads to Western-minded solutions that don’t serve the community. We know better, so let’s do better. Dedicate yourself to patient, honest learning.

    • Do create a space for partnership / Don’t rely on likeability.
      Have open conversations with community partners, driven by mutual learning. Instead of focusing on a potential grantee’s charisma or your chemistry, work to find shared values and establish shared goals.

    • Do share your lessons / Don’t go it alone.
      Share what you learn with other funders, peers, and the internet. Join a network like The Philanthropy Workshop to access more educational tools and connect with grantmakers.

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  • 2

    Do your homework

    Before you approach a local leader or community-based organization (CBO), it’s vital to do your own research. It’s also important to acknowledge that the most marginalized populations are often the most invisible.
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    Before you approach a local leader or community-based organization (CBO), it’s vital to do your own research. It’s also important to acknowledge that the most marginalized populations — and the CBOs that serve them — are often the most invisible. So be prepared to do some digging. To facilitate your research, we’ve asked grantmakers of all shapes and sizes how they get started. Here are some of their to-dos:

    • Read all public resources available: websites, social media pages, annual reports.
    • Reach out to funders listed on their website.
    • Talk to a partner organization about their experience working together.
    • Access public records to learn about their finances.
    • Reach outside of your usual circles to ask questions.
    • Research other organizations doing similar work
    • Expand your knowledge about the region or issue. What demographic data can you find? Are there conferences? Online networks? Newsletters?
    • Finally: Ask for a phone call.

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  • 3

    Learn from the experts

    After you’ve done your research about an organization, you might be interested in meeting with them and seeing their work in action.
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    After you’ve done your research about an organization, you might be interested in meeting with them and seeing their work in action. When that happens, make sure to approach local leaders with genuine curiosity. What’s their vision? What does success look like to them? By fostering open conversations, you can begin to discover a local leader’s authentic voice.

    Speaking of voices — language is important! When partnering directly with local leaders and grassroots organizations, you need to understand different cultures. To do that well, you should hire an interpreter. Even in your own country, if you’re going to work in a community that is not your own, finding an interpreter who really knows the cultural context will prove of tremendous help. A translator isn’t going to cut it — you want to make sure that everyone at the table understands the rich details and nuances of a shared conversation.

    "Funders often undervalue the incredible knowledge, strength, capabilities, and relevant connections of local leaders that are essential to achieve change. We have a lot to learn from the people we aim to strengthen and support — if we would build upon their proposals, this would also contribute to building trust and shifting power relations." -Tamara Mohr, GAGGA Coordinator for Both ENDS
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  • 4

    Use in-person visits to build a connection

    Ah, the beloved site visit. You talk to some people, have them play tour guide for you, check off boxes on your clipboard, and leave feeling like Mr. Do-gooder, right?
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    Ah, the beloved site visit. You talk to some people, have them play tour guide for you, check off boxes on your clipboard, and leave feeling like Mr. Do-gooder, right?

    Jokes aside, too many people tend to get site visits wrong. Site visits are an incredible opportunity to build a relationship between you and a local partner and to continue learning together. So here are few tips on how you can see an organization’s vision in action, while respecting a nonprofit’s time:

    • Make it active. Plan your visit around a leadership training, conference, clinic walk-through, or other event that the CBO is already hosting.

    • Be prepared, but flexible. Some funders get frustrated by site visits that don’t conform to Western ideas of “efficiency” or have strict agendas. Let your hosts lead your time together.

    • Provide compensation. Local leaders put a lot of energy into the planning and logistics of in-person meetings, taking them away from their work. Ask them for a budget to cover things like transportation, meals, and staff time.

    • Be aware of power dynamics.
      • First off, remember you’re a guest in their “home”. When you’ve been invited into a community, take on that humble mindset as you enter the space.

      • Pay attention to how you present in the specific cultural context.This includes tone, conversation style, body language, and what you’re wearing.

      • Pause. Listen. Don’t try to fill silences when they come up.

    • Ask honest questions.
      • Start with open-ended questions, leading with real curiosity about how things are going in general. Examples: How are things? What are you working on? Tell me about your mission.

      • Instead of sticking to a prepared script, let the conversation flow and be open to surprises. This is an invitation for a local leader to really share their story, and for you to listen. When you develop trust, they will feel more comfortable opening up about what’s really going on. Examples: It sounds like that surprised you — what happened next? Can you tell me more about that?

      • Save pointed questions until the end. Examples: How have things changed in your community since we last spoke? Do you currently have any other funding sources? How do you feel about this style of funding?

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  • 5

    Build an advisory network to learn about a region

    When you’re exploring a new region, you need to put feelers out into a community long before you’re even planning an initiative.
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    When you’re exploring a new region, you need to put feelers out into a community long before you’re even planning an initiative. Start by recruiting a group of well-connected advisors. They could be directors of CBOs, recipients of past grants, or other highly engaged people — this is the time to tap into existing networks and find out who to talk to.

    Once formed, these advisors can describe what’s happening on the ground and what tactics they’re seeing. Not only does this act as a tool for learning, it becomes a valuable networking tool for the advisors themselves. This should be one of your goals as a grantmaker: providing more avenues for advisors to forge relationships and build confidence, so that ultimately, they have the agency to act.

    Advisory networks in action: Partners Asia has developed a network in Thailand and Myanmar over the last ten years, providing $500 annual stipends to advisors. Beyond meeting quarterly to share updates, these advisors have built relationships with each other and are incredibly proactive — often taking it upon themselves to solve problems when they come up in a community.
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  • 6

    Use learning grants to understand local leaders

    Once you’ve done your homework on CBOs in an area, consider giving small annual grants to a broad range of community leaders so that you can dig deeper into the local context.
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    Once you’ve done your homework on CBOs in an area, consider giving small annual grants to a broad range of community leaders so that you can dig deeper into the local context. Learning grants help funders understand the unique pressures on a community, the activities and reputations of different organizations, and the types of support that might be most beneficial.

    The length of a learning grant depends on your personal familiarity with the region or issue — it could be 1-2 years. You’re paying local leaders for their expertise, and for their time. This gives you both the opportunity to connect over 1-2 site visits and a handful of phone calls throughout the year, and to continue building a relationship with each other.
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  • 7

    Fund shared community research

    The most innovative grant can sometimes be the most simple: research.
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    The most innovative grant can sometimes be the most simple: research. Community-based organizations often ask for this kind of funding, but some grantmakers hesitate because it’s not tied to a specific “program.” In practice, research makes any program more successful and agile in the long run — CBOs can better assess the intricate and interconnected needs of their community and get a useful baseline to see whether programs work over time.

    So consider investing in community research that benefits multiple organizations, which sets up more local leaders to develop effective programs. Working this way may even plant the seeds for collaboration between community organizations — a powerful tool for systemic change that we explore in the next piece of the Direct Philanthropy Starter Kit.
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Learning is a lifelong process

We’re sharing these tools and tactics to help you make concrete plans that bring learning into every step of your grantmaking process. While we do love a good checklist, changing your mindset isn’t just a quick, one-off project. With direct philanthropy, it’s a lifelong commitment to deep listening and inquiry, knowing that the answers lie outside of yourself, and trusting local communities as your teachers. So, in the spirit of humility: what do you want to learn next?

Let's hear your big open questions about direct philanthropy. Email us. →