Putting Grantees at the Center of Philanthropy
Putting Grantees at the Center of Philanthropy
This multi-part series, produced in partnership with Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, tells the story of why and how grantee inclusion is key to effective philanthropy, from both the funder and nonprofit perspectives.

I won’t make the case that grantee inclusion and learning how to do it well is the critical problem we need to solve for philanthropy to become a transformative force for social change. It isn’t.

Grantee inclusion—as a way for foundations to understand grantees’ needs and ultimately become more effective—is a small solution for a larger problem of unbalanced accountability between the two parties. Authentic inclusion deepens relationships and enriches foundation strategy; I am a witness. However, strong, effective relationships are generally rooted in mutual accountability.

When speaking of accountability, I am intrigued by an idea political scientist Andreas Schedler lays out in “Conceptualizing Accountability,” a chapter in “The Self Restraining State: Power & Accountability in New Democracies”.  He provides a compelling argument that accountability contains two dimensions: answerability and enforceability. Answerability involves sharing information and explaining decisions. Enforceability involves the ability to enact consequences for the violation of rules. These two dimensions bring up a sea of complexities: What rules? What information? While I don’t have answers to those questions, I am confident that we need more powerful frames than inclusion—the notion of “my including you”—to have the kinds of relationships between grantmakers and grantees that bring about transformational change at a grand scale. Inclusion simply does not transform the relationship of one-way accountability of grantees to funders.

However, grantee inclusion has allowed the Heinz Endowments to experiment with deeper partnerships, increase transparency, and think more intentionally about fostering relationships that illustrate what a mutually accountable system might look like—at least along the dimension of answerability.

This focus on inclusion intensified with the Endowments’ participation in Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ Change Incubator—a program that aims to speed the pace at which philanthropy embraces authentic grantee inclusion—and its use of the adaptive leadership model. In this model, “adaptive” challenges”—including what I’ve called “larger problem of unbalanced accountability” above—are ones we feel in our heart and gut, and solving them often requires wide-scale cultural or operational change. On the other hand, “technical” issues—relatively small problems—are easier to identify with our heads and have clearer, more tangible solutions. For me, grantee inclusion is more of a technical response. But when done in a meaningful way—by offering grantees the opportunity to really shift foundation strategy, design grant programs, and ask questions about how the foundation works, just as we ask grantees about their organizations—grantee inclusion gives us a window into how to tackle the larger problem.

At the Heinz Endowments, I’ve been focusing on grantee inclusion within a program called the Transformative Arts Process (TAP). Since its creation, TAP has deeply engaged grantees, youth beneficiaries, and fellow grantmakers to co-develop a strategy that creates dynamic arts experiences for youth who live in African American and economically distressed neighborhoods. Three practices we’ve developed highlight specific, smaller approaches that organizations can implement relatively quickly and that can help develop the mutual “answerability” side of accountability:

1. Design an advisory board of grantees and beneficiaries with grantees and beneficiaries. When we first assembled the TAP advisory board, after selecting from a variety of nominations, we brought a draft of the board’s scope and purpose, as well as an outline of our field-building strategy, to the first meeting, imagining that board members might make some tweaks. What happened was surprising and fascinating. Advisory board members completely reimagined their role as one that would allow them to co-design the strategy and play an important part in communicating with the community about the work. They essentially said, “We want more power.” We went back to the office, talked among ourselves, and came back with a redesigned scope for the board. Because of the valuable ideas they’ve offered us, we’ve allocated a 20 percent increase in TAP’s overall funding and have a much richer and more-nuanced strategy. For example, the advisory board believed the majority of funding should go into the hands of both the artists that teach young people and the young artists themselves, and into improving the physical locations of programs—ideas we didn’t have before entering the process.

2. Design agendas and facilitate advisory board meetings with advisory board members. One of the agreements we made with TAP’s advisory board is that we will rotate the responsibility of designing our agendas and facilitating our meetings among advisory board members in collaboration with the Heinz Endowments’ staff. This has allowed us to deepen our relationships with advisory board members. It also has helped build relationships among the board members themselves, who are more visible to one another and can collaborate while refining the ideas and questions that our staff ask.

3. Design data-collection, evaluation, and learning processes with advisory board members. Before we developed an advisory board, we convened a body of more than 20 current and potential grantees and engaged in a six-month process to answer the question: How can the arts transform the lives of youth living in economically distressed neighborhoods? We traveled as a group—staff, grantees, and potential grantees—to three different cities; produced data for the cohort at their request, based on our prior grantmaking in distressed neighborhoods; and eventually incorporated grantee ideas of what transformative art for youth might look like in Pittsburgh. This process led to almost $2 million in grants, including the redesign of a more standard Pittsburgh YMCA into a YMCA Youth Creativity Center that will include a recording studio, black box theater, outdoor amphitheater, professional kitchen, and video studio.

Grantee inclusion is a critical and important step toward mutual accountability; when implemented deeply, it lets us imagine even more far-reaching practices of accountability, transparency, and partnership between grantmakers and grantees. To this end, we are not without models. Innovation in this area is coming from social justice funders, for example, such as London’s EDGE Fund or Philadelphia’s Leeway Foundation. These funders moved past inclusion to accountability by having members of the field serve as the governing body and having grantees vote on aspects of the awarding process.

I am grateful for the opportunity the Change Incubator has given us to think through questions of inclusion and beyond, and for prior work I’ve done with Grantmakers in the Arts, which introduced me to The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and the idea of accountability as a critical component of anti-racist work, and shaped my thinking about the design of the Transformative Arts Process. Of course, building a new vision of mutual accountability for the social sector amidst our huge wealth, power, and race disparities is a long row to hoe. But I have learned through our work at the Heinz Endowments that technical approaches to inclusion can give us small-scale examples of how our field might transform.