We need to articulate our assumptions so that we can test them. Here’s a guide to help.

Published: November 2021

Type: Publication

Tanya Beer
Julia Coffman, Headshot

Our four-page guidance on generating assumptions defines assumptions, explains why it is critical to articulate them, and then offers a set of prompting questions to help elicit them. Examples are included.

We often hear in philanthropy about the importance of evidence and the need to be evidence-based. At the same time, we know that much of what foundations fund is based on assumptions—a set of beliefs about how social change occurs that are untested or based on limited evidence.

A good deal of philanthropic funding goes toward innovation or front-edge thinking, so ideas based on untested assumptions are to be expected, even encouraged. In addition, our increasingly post-normal context means that even when we have evidence, we can’t guarantee that what worked before will work again.

The problem is not that foundations have assumptions. It is that we need to articulate them so that our thinking is visible to others and can be tested, particularly with those who are impacted by the work directly.

We need to examine deeply where assumptions come from–whose beliefs they are and based on what experiences. We need to check and interrogate assumptions against what is known already based on existing research, analogous approaches, shared professional know-how, and the insights and experiences of others—especially those affected by the problem being addressed.

That said, articulating assumptions is easier said than done. Most of us struggle with where to start, and we stop too soon once it gets hard. Our guidance is here to help.

The guide was produced with support from Luminate Group.