Mind the Gap

With all of the reports, blog posts, and webinars that we get exposed to every day, it’s sometimes hard to believe that we can’t find the answers we are looking for. Is the evidence out there and I’m just looking in the wrong place? Well, sometimes yes.

But when it comes to the topic of risk and philanthropy, the answer is actually no. It may seem like we talk a lot about risk, but it turns out that we don’t actually talk very much at all about how to manage risk on the ground; at least not publicly.

Our IssueLab team recently completed an evidence scan funded by the Open Road Alliance, an organization that is committed to helping nonprofits manage and meet unforeseen circumstances. Following our methodology for scanning the sector’s  “grey” literature, IssueLab identified appropriate and inclusive search terms, performed an initial search of the existing IssueLab database; mined citations from a list of publications provided by Open Road Alliance; searched the websites and blogs of funders whose grants included search terms related to risk; searched literature about the sector from sector-specific publications like SSIR, Foundation Review, and NVSQ; and searched the websites and& blogs of philanthropy schools. We were looking for evidence and insights that matched our subject matter criteria as well as criteria we had set around publishing date and geography. After fully indexing the collection for basic metadata, identifying duplicate resources, and excluding titles that did not allow full, free access to the resource itself, the final collection was reduced to 70 titles.

During the search and indexing phases, IssueLab staff captured keywords for each document through an open coding process, tagging the content with terms that appeared in the reports themselves. This set of keywords was then reviewed for possible groupings or themes. After the resulting list of themes and categories was shared with Open Road and validated for relevancy, IssueLab staff re-coded all of the resources in the browseable, searchable, and public collection to the following category groups: Types of Risk, Perspectives on Risk, and Working with Risk.

So what did we find out about how the topic of risk and philanthropy is being addressed in the sector literature? What we found is a lot of talk about the ethos of risk-taking and the unique role and responsibility that foundations have to take risks that other sectors simply can’t. This is the stuff of plenary sessions, blog posts, and advocacy campaigns. It’s stuff that’s actually necessary to push us out of our comfort zones. But unfortunately it’s not sufficient in guiding us once we’ve left that zone. We also found a lot of talk about risk in the literature associated with social investment, where the topic of risk is fundamental to the logic and measurement of ROI. Again, incredibly useful but how do we understand, anticipate, and mitigate risks that are harder to quantify?

It’s as if we are about to cross a busy intersection and, distracted by imperatives to “fail fast” or calculations of ROI, we fall into the proverbial open manhole of on-the-ground risks like an unexpected loss of funding or a security breach. Encouragement to share lessons about failure or to think about risk-taking as inherent to innovation may pad our fall, but unfortunately they don’t always materialize in accessible lessons about how best to mitigate and manage risk.

Of course, any effort to scan and collect existing evidence is a work in progress. We hope, and need, for others to point us to new work on this issue or work we might have simply missed in our search. So, if you know of a report, blog post, or article that helps foundations better navigate the risks they are often uniquely positioned to take, please share it. And if you, in turn, want to share what we have found with your own stakeholders and audiences, feel free to link to it or embed it directly into your own website. Knowledge is meant to be shared.

Editors Note: Next month, we’ll hear from Maya Winkelstein from Open Road Alliance about why this knowledge matters, and where we go from here.