Nonprofit Funders, It’s Time to Roll Up Our Sleeves
Do you believe the idea that “money can’t change everything?”
I certainly believe this (and heck, I’m a career fundraiser). Money will never solve all problems.
Now, how do you describe what your foundation does? Would you say identifying, funding and evaluating grants to nonprofits that do good work (within your focus) is a fair description?
Perhaps I’m “leading the witness” here, but I don’t actually think this encapsulates nonprofit funders core role at its finest. If money isn’t the silver bullet for change, and your foundation has a specific mission to carry out, then making grants is just one aspect of your work, right?
It merits repeating. Foundations don’t exist to manage a grants process. Foundations exist to create change. So, if money doesn’t change everything, making grants is only the start of your work as a nonprofit funder.
Yet, so often, this is how we think about our work. We do call the field “grantmaking,” after all.
The Effective Philanthropy Movement
A growing number of nonprofit funders participating in the “effective philanthropy” movement have embraced the idea that grant dollars can’t change everything. They steep all aspects of their work and staff in the belief that effective foundations don’t exist to grant money. Effective funders exist to create mission-aligned impact by working through high-performing nonprofits, with grants as one tool in the toolkit.
Effective funders view their core role as something that envelops the grants process. They study complex social challenges, collaborate with others to craft shared, sweeping impact strategies, (then yes, they do grant money) and they continuously assist grantees in creating more meaningful outcomes.
Their work is rooted in a creed that says grant awards simply begin trusted relationships, and nonprofit funders do their best work after rolling up their sleeves to operate in relationship with local leaders. Toiling alongside grantee—outside the safe confines of a desk and grant reports—develops trust, encourages cooperation and connects grantees to the resources they need to manage high-impact programs.
Battling longstanding issues like poverty, racism and gaps in education are messy endeavors. Grantmaking, by nature, can afford us a clean position in our sector. If we so choose, we don’t need to dive into the muck and grime of community problems. Grant dollars can create a neat dividing line between “us and them” if we let it happen. For many of us, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get dirty.
While this sounds good in writing, it isn’t so easy in practice. It necessitates a total paradigm shift. Living the work alongside our grantees will invariably inform how our funding strategies must evolve. After directly helping our local leaders to overcome barriers or navigate obstacles, we can’t help but adapt our grants process to accommodate their reality. We can’t mandate that those who work on the front lines bend and contort their operations to fit within our preferences.
We must adapt to help grantees overcome.
Now, if you’re beginning to bristle at this message and feel, “Hey Nate! Talk to someone else, this already describes us!” that is very good. You should smile. Rest easy knowing you’re among the minority of nonprofit funders.
2 Nonprofit Funders Who Live their Work
A good friend, Eric Hozempa, Longmont Community Foundation’s executive director, recently shared this comment as we visited over a cup of coffee.
"Funders should get wet and dive into helping nonprofits that struggle with leadership changes, board development and fundraising. We get involved with these issues. Consulting-type issues. Why not? We're here to help, not just provide financial resources, right? Money can’t and doesn't change everything."
Well said. I quote Eric because he doesn’t just say it—he lives it. When Eric first started in his role, he realized that the Community Foundation’s historic reporting process wasn’t working for local nonprofits. It was stifling, and it didn’t inspire the type of creative feedback he and his donors needed to hear in order to learn and evolve.
So, Eric moved the Foundation to a video-only reporting process. Nonprofits record videos on their cell phones or webcams expressing—with full animation—tone and body language, how they were able to apply their grant to help the community and advance the foundation’s mission.
Lee Gartley is a mentor, funder and former board chair of mine. Like Eric, he also lives the mantra that “money can’t change everything,” every single day.
Although Lee could rent out a private jet if he chose (and he may blush reading this), he is never more thrilled than after snatching a $99 on-sale ticket from American Airlines. He elected to take the 5 a.m. Boston-to-Chicago flight to visit our office for the cost savings, and rather than take a cab to the office from the airport, he would ride the subway.
Lee emulated the values, like fiscal responsibility, that he encouraged our staff to embrace.
Similarly, Lee used to spend the whole day at our office, changing rooms every few hours to listen to each functional area of our organization. He wanted to learn our operations through-and-through, so that he could guide our efforts.
Lee rolled up his sleeves and got into the trenches with us. There were countless nights that I’d send him a spreadsheet full of program data or a draft newsletter for editing. He was always there. My email would chime at 9 p.m., as he sent back cleaned spreadsheets and redlined Word documents with paragraph-long emails.
You see, Lee not only invested funding, he applied his experience and time to ensure we accomplished the mission.
3 Ways to Roll Up Your Sleeves
Practically speaking, how can you begin to roll up your proverbial “sleeves?” Here are three ways.
1. Ask Your Grantees for Feedback and Full Candor
I recently conducted a “grantee needs assessment” for the staff at The Daniel Foundation of Alabama. The Daniel Foundation’s staff is intensely interested in hearing what their grantees have to say—and say outside of formal grant documents.
Maria Kennedy, the Foundation’s Executive Director, wanted to measure their grantees’ day-to-day operating challenges while capturing more unfiltered feedback. However, the Foundation’s five staff members support over 250 nonprofits all across the state of Alabama. Maria realized that although she couldn’t sit down with each grantee face-to-face, that didn’t reduce the Foundation’s need to seek honest feedback. So, she got creative and commissioned an online and webinar-based assessment process.
Maria knows that when we only rely on grant reports and applications for information, we lose an opportunity to build relationships with our grantees. We get limited, polished accounts of what’s really happening inside the organization. If we’re to help nonprofits create more meaningful outcomes, we need to see the full scope of their challenges.
Reflecting, how could you create a more informal process for capturing your grantees’ feedback? Could you form a small panel to meet regularly by conference call? Build an online survey?
Have you ever asked your grantees questions like, “What do you need from us (outside of grant dollars) to create more outcomes?” How about, “What do you feel that we, as XYZ Foundation, don’t yet understand, but should, about the work you do?”
Now, here’s the gut-check. Will you only ask the question, or also listen to the answers?
2. Require All Staff Members (Not Just Program Officers) to Get Out of the Office
While we can use technology to efficiently capture feedback, there is no complete substitute for visiting the communities we serve. So much of the information we absorb on a daily basis is non-verbal and unrehearsed, so it’s critical that everyone in the office—even administrative staff—make spending time in the community a priority.
Getting out of the office allows staff to capture more context, nuance and unfiltered critiques that otherwise, we would never have to inform our work. When all staff commits to get out of the office, we create more widespread concern for the needs of local nonprofits.
Do you have a policy that sets expectations for the amount of time your program officers must spend out of the office? (An average benchmark for most is ~30 percent of the program officer’s time should be spent in the community.)
If you don’t have something like this in place, is it needed? Do you find your staff is mostly in or out of the office? Do they have the flexibility they need to increase time spent out of office?
If you already have a policy like this in place, could you extend it to all staff members? Could your team have flexible summer afternoons to attend more community events? Could your development team hold donor meetings from a nonprofit’s office? Could your board of directors meet in a nonprofit’s office, instead of the foundation boardroom?
3. Create and Manage to Set Expectations for Responsive Service
While emailing with The Denver Foundation’s VP of Community Impact, Dace West, I noticed that her email signature said, “The Denver Foundation is committed to timely customer service. If you have not received a response within two business days, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.”
This is such an easy idea, and yet, it was the first time I had ever seen that line in an email. Why is that the case?
Well, I think requires a commitment to holding ourselves accountable and recognizing that grantmakers are also in the services industry.
Clearly, The Denver Foundation understands they exist to connect donors to local nonprofits and to serve those nonprofits addressing urgent needs in Metro Denver. It is out of this perspective that they’ve decided to hold themselves to the expectation of fast engagement and timely responses. Further, they’ve put in place a process to ensure this is upheld.
Reflecting on your own operations, do you have a quantified expectation for how responsive your staff should be? Is this known across all staff members, so that you can manage to it?
Is there some sort of “rubric” or evaluation tool your staff can use to measure the effectiveness of their interactions with grantees? Are they prepared and knowledgeable during grantee meetings, or do they create more burden and hassle? How do you know?
Nate is a CFRE and was the co-founder of DonorPath.org, which merged with Network for Good, where he now serves as their senior program director of impact & sustainability. In this capacity, Nate is primarily responsible for helping grantmakers to evaluate and redesign their grants process to better accomplish strategic impact objectives.
Since beginning work in professional fundraising, Nate has helped more than 500 small and emerging nonprofits address their most pressing fundraising challenges. As a Millennial who has dedicated his career to the fundraising professional, he is a sought-after speaker and workshop leader, helping Generation X and Baby Boomer fundraisers understand donor acquisition, digital, social and online fundraising.