Scanning the Landscape 2.0: Finding Out What’s Going on in Your Field

We talked with funders working in the US, Europe, and internationally about when, why, and how it’s useful to scan the landscape for new ideas and new directions. This updated edition of a 2004 GrantCraft guide reflects key changes in philanthropy, from the rise of social media to a growing tendency to scan continuously for changes and opportunities.

Highlights

  • What to ask, and how to ask it
  • Using data visualization for your learning
  • Online tools for scanning

What's in the Guide?

  • What is Scanning? To understand how your efforts fit within a wider field of activity, it's often useful to look at the field as a whole to see where the opportunities, needs, and gaps are. That's what we mean by "scanning." A scan can help you adjust to a new position, learn a new field, take a fresh look at grants you've already made, keep current with larger trends, or chart a course for the future.
  • Different Scans for Different Needs: Funders use scans for many reasons. Scans don't have to be long and complicated – but a thorough scan can be well worth the time and effort. This section explores various reasons for scanning and describes a range of approaches to meet particular needs.
  • What to ask, and how to ask it: Once you've framed the purpose of your scan, what kind of questions should you ask? And what's the best way to ask them? This section offers advice on eliciting the information you're looking for, pulling people together to share ideas, being a good listener, and leaving room for unexpected learning.
  • Managing expectations: Once a funder starts asking questions, holding meetings, and seeking out advice on a given topic, people in the field are likely to notice and become curious. Here are some tips on how to give a clear impression of what you're doing and how to manage the understandable hopes of people who would like to receive support.
  • Getting diverse viewpoints: A scan can be particularly useful when it concentrates on aspects of the field you don't know about, people you haven't heard from, and issues you hadn't considered before. This section offers some tested methods for soliciting unfamiliar ideas, meeting new people, and encouraging candid views and input.
  • Scanning continuously: These days, many funders treat scanning as a more or less continuous activity – a frame of mind or set of routines that helps them stay aware of the larger context, open to new ideas, and connected with broader networks.
  • Sharing the results of your scan: There are many ways to put the information you uncover to use, both within your foundation and in the field. Here, our contributors share ideas about how to use a scan and its results for the widest possible benefit.
  • takeaways
    Sharing the Results of Your Scan

    With effort, a scan can contribute to the knowledge and effectiveness of an entire foundation, other organizations, and the field as a whole in a number of ways:

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  • takeaways
    Online Tools for Scanning
    • Philanthropy News Digest is a daily online news service dedicated to philanthropy. 
    • IssueLab archives, distributes, and promotes the exten- sive and diverse body of research being produced by the nonprofit sector.
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  • takeaways
    Scanning Social Media

    Facebook, Google Alerts, Twitter, blogs, and other social media activity: To “track the pulse” of activity in education policy, one American grantmaker regularly follows a select group of blogs and Twitter feeds, “not just by policy wonks but by teachers and others whose opinions I respect, on both sides of many arguments, although they can be very ideological sometimes.”

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  • takeaways
    Scanning Continuously

    For many funders, scanning is more than just an occasional thing, reserved for periods of strategic planning and reflection. Instead, they see it as a continuous set of activities that help them stay current and alert to opportunities.

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  • takeaways
    Why Scan? Map the Funding Landscape

    If you’re looking for a unique niche or an opportunity to align and collaborate with others, a scan can uncover who else is supporting work in a particular field or geographic area. But a scan can yield more than a census of funding sources. Scanning techniques can help get below the surface of other funders’ interests, build relationships, and sharpen your own ongoing strategy development.

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  • takeaways
    Getting a Good Discussion Going

    Here are some questions to get people talking about what needs to be done in their field or community.

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    Getting Diverse Viewpoints

    Seek out contrary points of view. It’s essential to hear from people you don’t agree with, and to find out what they read, whom they talk to, and where they get their information. One funder explained his approach: “I’m always open to talking with people I don’t agree with because I want to learn what their position is.

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  • takeaways
    Managing Expectations in Landscape Scanning

    Recognize that scanning inevitably raises hopes of a possible grant. Consulting potential grantees during a scan “obviously generates expectations,” said one funder.

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  • takeaways
    Scanning Tools/Practices

    To get the best and most unvarnished answers to your questions, consider the following scanning techniques to supplement your individual interviews.

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  • takeaways
    What They Did, How They Did It: Framing Research Questions Together

    When program officers from two foundations decided to team up to hire an expert consulting group for a scan that would serve the learning needs of both, they put their heads together to decide what research questions to ask. Later, as the results came in, they conferred frequently with the consultants about what the research was uncovering and what further questions to ask. One described the process:

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  • takeaways
    What to Ask and How to Ask It

    Invite respondents to step into your shoes. It’s sometimes useful to ask people working in the field to help you think through funding priorities, given limited resources.

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    Why Scan? Synthesize Information and Find Gaps

    A scan can be useful for assembling a specific body of information in order to see what’s there, what’s not there, and where further action might be needed.

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    Why Scan? Understanding Emerging Issues

    A funder who works on school reform in the United States was curious to know more about a set of activities known variously as “next generation learning,” “blended learning,” “e-learning,” and “technology-enhanced learning.” “We wanted to understand how the terms were being used,” she noted, “and what was happening in the field — in terms of supply and demand— so we could test our hypotheses about how it all related to new school designs. We knew we needed some market research and analysis done, and that we couldn’t possibly get it done with our internal team.”

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    Why Scan? Learning to See from a Funder’s Perspective

    If you’re new to philanthropy, switching from the viewpoint of a practitioner to that of a funder means looking at the issues in a different way. Scanning techniques can help you understand what your potential role might be. As a new funder working in the area of children and families observed, “Before I took this job, I had worked for an advocacy organization in my field, so I knew what the issues were. But as a grantmaker, I had to think about things in a very different way. Now I had to think about, what’s the value added of our foundation’s money? How can our resources make a difference?”

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    Why Scan? Finding a Strategic Direction + Hearing from Constituencies

    Finding a Strategic Direction: Foundations differ dramatically in how, why, and how often they establish new priorities and guidelines. Whatever the circumstances, the quest for a new approach — whether precipitated by a perceived opportunity, a request from the board, the planned sunset of an existing program, or the appointment of a new president — usually starts with a scan.

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    Scanning Builds Relationships

    Scanning does more than gather data; it makes connections. As a program officer at an American regional foundation described it, “Scanning is about more than just plucking information. The process of conducting a scan can help you develop relationships and connect more deeply with the grantee community.” A scan can help you:

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  • takeaways
    Finding a Niche

    A way to “find the white space.” Sometimes a scan can help locate a niche where a funder can make a unique contribution.

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    What is Scanning?

    A way to see more broadly. Scanning can help you learn about a new field or stay on top of new developments in an ongoing program area. As one funder put it, “Every foundation has its own culture with preconceived notions of what the immediate needs are. It’s essential to get a broader perspective.” A U.S.-based program officer who supports workforce development reported that a scan turned up a completely new, unexpected direction. “Until we had our focus groups, I hadn’t realized how important organized labor would be in my work. That was not something I came to the grantmaker role with.” 

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  • takeaways
    How Do You Map the Networks You’re Interested In? Do You Use Network Mapping Software?

    Susan Jenkins, executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation: I’ve studied social networking, and I know there’s a lot of technology out there.

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  • takeaways
    Does Networking Place a Big Burden on You or Your Foundation in Terms of Time and Resources?

    Mary Kaplan, vice president of program at the Endowment for Health in Concord, New Hampshire: We struggle personally to do all the listening sessions in a one-month period. It’s grueling and exhausting to listen.

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  • takeaways
    How Do You Deal with Suggestions/Recommendations that Don’t Fit Well with Your Funding Priorities?

    Mary Kaplan, vice president of program at the Endowment for Health in Concord, New Hampshire: We listen to those. Sometimes people have trouble articulating something bigger than what’s going on with them.

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  • takeaways
    Does Your Network Reliably Bring You Valuable or Unexpected Information or Ideas?

    Joy Vermillion Heinsohn, program officer at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation: Sometimes panel members give us a heads up about something that’s going to happen.

    Read More »
  • takeaways
    How Do You Find People Who Can Connect You to the Networks You Want to Hear From?

    Marion Kane, executive director of the Barr Foundation: I started with the foundation’s own staff. When I interviewed potential staff members, I asked them about their networks.

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  • takeaways
    Why is Networking Important to You and Your Foundation? What Specific Strategies Do You Use?

    Joy Vermillion Heinsohn, program officer at the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation: We’ve had an advisory panel for over 25 years. There are fifteen members, and five of them are selected and five rotate off per year.

    Read More »

This guide is designed to help you at different times, as your interests (or those of your field) grow and change — including:

  • When you are just starting out in the role of grantmaker
  • When you turn your grant-making experience to a new program area
  • When you look over several years of grantmaking in a field, and want to understand the context in which you've been working

In addition to using the guide to think about and plan a scan, you may want to share the entire guide, or specific sections, with key partners, such as:

  • Consultants who help you design or conduct the scan
  • Facilitators who lead discussions with groups of people working in the field
  • Colleagues you ask to identify people with diverse viewpoints

You may also find it useful to share the guide with trustees and other decision makers at your foundation, to help illustrate how the process of scanning can be conducted and why it's valuable.

Please see the guided reading content associated with this guide for a sample reflection on practice exercise. 

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