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.

Some foundations inadvertently put nonprofits in competitive relationships with each other. They may invite 20 groups to meet about a new initiative, but when everyone knows only three will get funded, “it’s more like a caged death match.”

I have conducted hundreds of interviews and surveyed thousands of nonprofits over the last three years for Philamplify, which combines expert assessments and community feedback to maximize grantmaker impact, and the above sentiment from a community leader has stayed with me. The metaphor of a funder organizing a caged death match for nonprofits is both humorous and horrifying—and it was the first image that came to mind when I sat down to write about grantee inclusion for this series.

Of course, no grantmaker would intentionally pit nonprofits or communities against each other, but that can be the unintended consequence in a world of finite philanthropic resources for social change. As the sector embraces the concepts of collective impact, networks and ecosystems, and intersectionality to maximize social impact, it becomes increasingly important to think about inclusion more holistically—how foundations relate to nonprofit organizations both individually and collectively, and how they relate to the targeted beneficiaries that those organizations serve and engage. As Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has noted, grantee inclusion ultimately extends to community and resident inclusion.


Lori Bartczak noted in her introduction to this series that one ultimate goal of grantee inclusion is to create lasting social impact. I believe community empowerment is another critical goal—as an end in itself, as well as a means to social impact.

Community empowerment involves the intentional cultivation of residents as leaders and change agents, who can then wield collective power to transform systems that affect their community’s well-being. So it’s not just about trying to correct the power imbalance between foundations and nonprofits, but also the broader power imbalance between marginalized communities and the power structures that perpetuate inequity.

How do grantmakers foster inclusion in ways that support community leadership and empowerment? The California Endowment (TCE)—a health equity foundation that seeks to expand access to affordable, quality health care for underserved Californians—has embraced this idea. Its place-based Building Healthy Communities (BHC) initiative is premised on resident organizing to build power, and offers a useful framework to help foster local strategies and activities. Nearly 50,000 residents have been engaged in this process so far. For example, Hmong, African American, and Mexican residents of Fresno, Calif. banded together to successfully advocate with the city council for a community reinvestment plan.

As our Philamplify report on TCE notes, CEO Robert Ross also meets privately with the President’s Youth Council, created by Ross to get direct input and feedback from California youth leaders on youth leadership efforts and BHC. These youth experience a profound shift in their sense of personal and public agency through their involvement in BHC and the council, and use the organizing skills they acquire there to help lead other successful actions. In Fresno, young people advocated for a city youth commission to bring their voices into local government. As one youth leader reflected, “I can say I grew up with this initiative and the foundation. I am aware of bringing resources back to my community to make social change that is progress that everyone can benefit from … I can strive and obtain whatever I am capable of.”

Another good example is The Colorado Trust, which seeks fair and equitable opportunities for all Coloradans to lead productive lives. The Trust recently embraced resident inclusion to the point of replacing its program officers with “community partners” who act as regional organizers. Through resident organizing,  local communities will determine their goals and strategies, and the Trust will fund their solutions within a broad health equity frame. This experiment is exciting; it also raises some provocative questions. To what extent is it appropriate for a grantmaker to act as the community organizer? How best can foundations build the capacity of communities to organize themselves over the long term?

Another way foundations can foster resident empowerment is to invite multiple social change leaders and organizers from underserved communities to join the board. Including several representative leaders—not just one—enables true power sharing around foundation decision-making. It strengthens their leadership capacities and connections, and builds knowledge and understanding about community issues among the rest of the board.

Much of the sector seems hesitant to embrace board diversity with respect to race, income, and experience with building community power and leadership. The typical reasons we hear include insufficient political will, reluctance to leave one’s comfort zone, a fear of ceding control, or unfamiliarity with community change leaders and the value they bring as trustees. Notable exceptions include social justice public charities such as the Liberty Hill Foundation and Headwaters Foundation, which have long integrated strong community representation, as well as a few small social justice family foundations, including the Jessie Smith Noyes Foundation and the Needmor Fund. In fact, the Noyes Foundation, which supports grassroots organizations working to bring about just, equitable, and sustainable economic, environmental, political, and social change, chose third-generation Chicano community organizer, Genaro Lopez-Rendon, as its new president. Lopez-Rendon said, “I believe this is a radical notion for philanthropy—letting the voice of leadership be that of people of color and indigenous peoples.”

Needmor Fund fosters the dual goals of inclusive decision-making and community empowerment by inviting its grantees to consider shareholder activism as a joint strategy to achieve impact. The fund proactively uses this mission-investing tool to influence corporate practices, and through voting proxies, it shares influence with those harmed by such practices.

Getting back to that caged death match metaphor … an inclusive funder that supports community empowerment convenes constituents in ways that foster collaboration rather than competition, and that level the playing field so that grassroots community organizing groups and other constituency-led organizations have as much say in the conversation as more established and larger nonprofits. Grantees and other stakeholders praised Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ Change Incubator cohort member Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation for doing just that.

The foundations I’ve mentioned that model inclusivity and community empowerment seem to have three things in common:

  1. A steadfast commitment to long-term change that advances equity and justice
  2. Diverse executive leadership
  3. A willingness to reflect on and use stakeholder feedback to become more impactful and responsive

As funders think about the ways they currently include grantees in processes and decisions, they should consider: How can our organizations’ habits and practices of inclusion go even further to support resident empowerment? I’ve shared a few ideas, and no doubt there are many others worth considering. The reward goes beyond having better grantee relationships and receiving actionable feedback, to fostering effective community leaders equipped to make lasting change.