How Private Foundations Can Be Proactive in Summer
It’s widely accepted in the world of fundraising that summer can be slow. Funders tune out—they travel, they spend time with family. In general, giving slows to a crawl, especially as compared to the frenzied pace of solicitations and grant making that occurs in November and December.
Each year, Foundation Source analyzes its clients’ grant-making patterns, and the numbers confirm what we already know: Foundation giving is at its lowest around August [see this chart]. And while this lull in giving will undoubtedly increase the blood pressure of many fundraising professionals, we have seen how grant makers can effectively use this slow period to prepare for what is to come. In fact, summer can provide an ideal window for private foundation officers and board members to review strategies, strengthen infrastructure and gain clarity around their grant-making plans for the rest of the year. The overarching point here is that even if donors aren’t actively making grants mid-year, they can still use this time to be proactive about advancing philanthropic goals.
We recently outlined six easy-to-implement strategies to encourage our private foundations clients to take advantage of these remaining weeks of summer. We offer them here to the NonProfit PRO readership so that you can help spread the word to the many donors with whom you engage. By implementing even one of these strategies in summer, funders are more likely to maximize the social return on their giving, which is good news for all nonprofits and the causes they champion.
1. Deepen your knowledge. Being a strategic funder requires knowledge about causes, prospective grantees and best practices. Summertime is ideal for researching and catching up on reading.
- Research causes and strategies: There are many online and print resources for learning about possible strategies and issue areas. Donors can peruse the Chronicle of Philanthropy website for the latest funding trends or read Philanthropy Magazine. Donors who want to learn about impact investing and other nontraditional forms of grant making can visit the Mission Investors Exchange Knowledge Base. And for more information about specific causes, The Foundation Center’s Issue Lab is another potential destination.
- Due diligence for grantees: A foundation needs to do its homework to ensure it supports organizations that will make the most effective use of its funds. As a starting point, the foundation must confirm that its grantees are in good standing with the IRS as public charities. As a public service, Foundation Source offers access to GrantSafe, a free, pre-grant due-diligence product that is 100 percent compliant with increasingly complex IRS requirements. For additional information on nonprofit organizations, foundations may want to consult GuideStar, Charity Navigator, GreatNonprofits, Charity Watch and Give.org, the website of the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance.
- Consume content: Information is readily available (online and offline) for every aspect of philanthropy. When donors are packing their bags (or loading their Kindles) for the beach, they may want to bring along a couple of helpful books to inform their philanthropy. Stanford Social Innovation Review maintains a robust list of philanthropy-related reads, and the GrantCraft blog offers a wealth of insightful reads on the practice of philanthropy. In addition to the written word, there are a variety of podcasts on philanthropy that edify and inform. Foundation Source’s own series, Forward Thinking, features interviews with trailblazing entrepreneurs and next-generation philanthropists who are transforming the sector with inspiring ideas and innovative strategies. Another great podcast is the TED Radio Hour, which presents fascinating ideas based on the thought-provoking series of TED talks. You might also try running a search on the word “philanthropy” on the TED Talks website.
2. Combine philanthropy with fun. Many philanthropically minded families use summer outings and vacation excursions as opportunities to advance their foundation work while enjoying some recreation. Consider incorporating volunteering or research into your summer plans. Some of these associated expenses might be eligible for reimbursement by the foundation as well. Some suggestions:
- Volunteer: Get involved with a local “rails to trails” or summer camp.
- Tour: Explore your local state parks and nature conservancies, and learn more about their needs.
- Travel: Build a family vacation around grantee site visits and volunteer opportunities.
- Convene: Take advantage of a summer gathering to develop marching orders for after Labor Day. One hour out of your vacation time could save dozens of hours of scrambling at year-end.
3. Cultivate your board. Summer can be the perfect time to fill gaps on the foundation’s board, possibly looking beyond the family to recruit new members with requisite expertise. Board member selection is about identifying someone in your extended network who you want to bring into the fold. It requires trust and a strong rapport. Donors can use the slower summer months to schedule a golf outing or meet for coffee to get to know possible candidates and gauge their interest. This article discusses factors to consider when considering non-family members for board service and best practices to ensure their effective involvement once elected.
4. Focus on compliance. IRS regulations pertaining to private foundations are often complicated and sometimes gray. Foundations that aren’t aware of the rules or don’t follow them properly expose themselves to risk. Donors can take advantage of this slow time to ensure that their foundations are compliant with ever-changing rules and regulations. Foundation Source offers a quick and easy compliance assessment tool designed to flag activities that can subject a foundation, its managers and contributors to possible penalties. Another relevant read is this paper: 10 Rules Every Foundation Should Know About Compliance.
5. Ask the big questions. Reflect on the strategic direction of the foundation and evaluate its impact by asking questions such as, “What could we be doing differently?” and, “Is it time to develop a more focused mission?” We encourage our clients to set at least one ambitious goal at the beginning of the year, such as learning about a new issue area or expanding one’s circle of grantees. In summer we have the chance to revisit those goals and determine what needs to happen in order to achieve them. This Foundation Source article offers insights into how foundations can articulate their missions, and this article outlines 10 things you didn't know you could do with a private foundation.
6. Make some grants! Just because summer is traditionally a slower time of year for grant making does not mean foundations can’t be more active. In the same manner that we might pay estimated taxes each year to avoid lump payments at year-end, donors should consider pacing grant making throughout the year. There are plenty of worthy nonprofits with constituents that need help year-round that would appreciate receiving support well in advance of the holiday giving season.
John Oddy is senior philanthropic director with Foundation Source in Fairfield, CT. Based in New York, John works directly with private foundations, their donors and families. Before coming to Foundation Source, John was Executive Director of The Royal Oak Foundation, a U.S. charity supporting the National Trust of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Prior to that, he was Program Officer at the Getty Grant Program, the philanthropic arm of the J. Paul Getty Trust, supporting conservation of significant art and architecture internationally. John studied Art History as an undergraduate at Bard College and Urban Planning at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.
Elizabeth Wong is philanthropic director with Foundation Source. Based in Seattle, Elizabeth works with West Coast private foundations, their donors and families. From 2010 to 2014, she managed her own philanthropic consultancy, working with foundations and public charities in the areas of strategic planning, organizational development, governance, nonprofit management, and executive coaching. Earlier in her career, Elizabeth was a senior program officer at the Gates Foundation.