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Using Equity-Centered Research to Inform Foundation Strategy

TPI was honored to lead a session at Exponent Philanthropy’s annual conference last fall. It was wonderful to be able to gather in person again for networking and learning.

Conference sessions looked at how to center equity in evaluation, what an equity-centered strategy looks like in practice, and much more. The keynote speakers pushed all of us to find new and more effective ways to deploy philanthropic resources to advance equity goals and other priorities. One common theme ran throughout: the importance of centering grantee and community voice in the philanthropic journey.

At TPI, our consulting work with funders spans this entire journey, from research and learning to evaluation and reflection. We see each step as integral to high-impact philanthropy, and centering equity along the way is key to having sustainable and long-lasting impact. During our session, we discussed ways to incorporate equity-centered research and learning into foundation planning, execution, and evaluation work.

What is equity-centered research?

There are many approaches funders may consider to learn more about ways in which philanthropy can make a difference in addressing the issues they care most about. Research tools and methods include both quantitative and qualitative data, and many funders will want to consider a combination of approaches to obtain meaningful input to inform their strategies.​ Some key approaches include:​

  • Stakeholder interviews, focus groups, and listening tours​
  • Grantee and nonprofit surveys​
  • Advisory groups that may include community members, practitioners, and thought leaders
  • Community indicators, trends, or other data​
  • Best practice benchmarking​

As described in a Barr Foundation blog post, To Center Equity, We Must Learn Differently, equity-centered research involves engaging people with many different perspectives, including those at the center who are most affected by the issues funders are trying to address. Through equity-centered research, we listen to and learn from those on the ground, including community members and nonprofit leaders as well as experts, thought leaders, and other stakeholders with important insights and ideas. The goal is to learn from those most affected by issues as well as experts in the field, and to use those learnings to inform your foundation’s strategies and grantmaking decisions.

Putting it into practice.

During our conference session, we shared an example of how one foundation is intentionally incorporating an equity lens into its evaluation, research, and learning. State Street Foundation is a multinational corporate foundation that focuses largely on two strategic focus areas – education and workforce development. State Street Foundation engaged TPI to conduct two racial equity and social justice studies: (1) an assessment of the extent to which its Boston-area grantee partners aim to advance racial equity, and (2) an environmental scan to identify nonprofit organizations that are explicitly working to advance racial equity and social justice. For the environmental scan, TPI used an equity-informed approach to develop survey questions and to analyze responses from nonprofit organizations. We obtained input from several funders and thought leaders, and an internal working group at the Foundation, and then invited all nonprofit organizations in Boston and Quincy, Massachusetts to respond to an online survey addressing questions about leadership and staffing, racial demographics of those served by the organization, capacity needs, and more.

Based on TPI’s research and analysis, State Street Foundation went through a process of further exploration that resulted in the addition of several new grantees to their portfolio – some organizations that are ready to scale their work and some smaller community-based organizations with long-term potential to advance racial equity and social justice.

Where do you go from here?

We encourage funders to think of the work of incorporating equity-centered practices in grantmaking and other strategies as a roadmap. No matter where you are in your philanthropic journey – just starting up and thinking through your philanthropic mission and goals, designing strategies, or implementing and evaluating your strategies – there are no doubt ways to take the work to the next level of impact. When approaching research, planning, implementation, or evaluation and reflection, start with what questions you have and what your goals are. What questions do you hope to find answers to through your research and learning? Where are the gaps and where can you step in and create impact in the areas that you care most about. And when developing your approach, center the community you are focusing on. Seek the expertise of the community and of those doing the work that could further your philanthropic goals – including those that are most affected.