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 have a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old at home, which means that most of what I’ve done outside of my work life in the last six years has involved trial and error. “If I put him to bed later, will he sleep past daybreak?” Nope. “How about if we go to bed earlier?”  “What if I put him in footie pajamas?”

When you’re a parent, you make some of these tweaks out of desperation—“How am I going to get enough sleep so that I can function as a person, let alone a foundation program officer?” And while we hopelessly grasp for that perfect formula, we also know that it’s constantly evolving and impacted by variables and conditions that we are only vaguely aware of. In other words, parenting challenges are not technical and cannot be solved by expertise alone. They’re adaptive, produced by a complicated system and often beyond a single individual’s control.

Reflecting back on these years, I’ve realized that I’ve been conducting (sometimes nightly) exercises in process improvement: evaluating the results, making new discoveries, and keeping only what has worked. Little did I know how much this would parallel my professional life, as the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation has, over the last year, embarked on work to enhance our support to our grantees. With credit to The Center for Effective Philanthropy, we call this strategic approach “more than money.” It is an intentional effort to engage grantees, in ways beyond grantmaking—such as training, convening support, and strategic communications—that can help us better partner with and support them, not simply for the sake of grant-funded projects but their larger success as organizations.

Like many foundations, we had an initial tendency to approach authentic grantee engagement as if it were Pandora’s Box—with fear that cracking the top open would unleash unknown challenges and risks. We knew some of what could be in there: power dynamics, disappointment, privilege, and hard conversations among ourselves and with grantees. Not a lot of fun to let those out.

In our early years, we treaded lightly when it came to grantee inclusion. We were approachable, kind, aware of the power dynamic. As a staff we tried to be relatable, but we didn’t open ourselves up entirely—mostly out of fear of both over-committing our small staff and failing to meet the expectations of our grantees. This meant that, early on, our “more than money” effort was fairly technical and insulated: We included more staff in early meetings with grantees, but mostly we were telling grantees about support that we already offered, rather than listening for what they needed. While this approach was helpful to a point, we ultimately decided that we needed to bring greater grantee voice into shaping the kinds of support we could provide.

So we decided to use our engagement with the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO) Change Incubator program to advance this work. Using ideas from that program, we’ve increased our focus on providing support to grantees beyond grant dollars—moving from the transactional and aspiring to the transformational.

For example, over the summer we have made a focused effort to improve one of the fundamental internal processes of a foundation—what’s typically called “onboarding” a new grantee. This process might fall somewhere on the scale between orientation and hazing, depending upon the grantee’s experience. Okay, hopefully not hazing—but in its very definition, onboarding usually implies that the grantee is joining us on our ship, rather than building one with us.

With a grantee engagement framework in mind, we’ve instead taken an approach that is not unlike the new parent’s approach to sleep. We’re considering and consulting on the variables that impact our relationships with grantees, developing a hypothesis, trying new ways of doing things, reflecting on the impact of these changes, and making small adjustments reflective of ongoing learning. But unlike the new parent who grasps at unknowable factors inside the mind of an infant, we instead have willing, smart, capable, and knowledgeable grantee partners to help us understand their overall strategy, challenges, and perspectives.   

So at the beginning of a new grant period, we invited grantees to a “Getting to Know You” meeting and identified technical variables there that we could tweak along the way: what staff attended, whether we were in person or on video, what was covered, and how we prepared participants. But we also knew there were many variables that we weren’t even aware of. What discussions had our new grantees already had at their shop? How far along were they in hiring? How much bandwidth did they have to participate in anything beyond the grant work? What capacity barriers had they already run up against? That is where engagement met inclusiveness.

We were clear with our grantees about our intent and approach, explaining that we aspire to be more than their financial backer and cheerleader, and asking them what it would take, from their perspective, for us to be a true partner to them. In the last two months, we have brought most of our team together for meetings with each of eight new grantees to brainstorm about what types of support we could provide—skills, connections, communications, and capacity building—to help them achieve their goals.

We’ve also been clear that we are seeking grantees’ honest feedback about this approach and the ensuing conversations, and we are working with a third party to solicit and aggregate feedback. And we’ve continued to reflect on how we can adapt to different grantees’ needs in each of our meetings, tweaking things from how we prepare the grantee and our team for the conversation to who sits where and who talks first or most.

This isn’t micromanagement for the sake of micromanagement, but rather a fine-toothed approach to maximizing impact, with a goal of creating an inclusive and welcoming environment for our ongoing relationship with grantees and increasing the likelihood of success or accelerating progress.

Early feedback from grantees is positive, as is the impact for us as a staff that is better able to understand and support grantees’ strategies from the outset. From the 60,000-foot view, we can also see trends in the larger landscape. For example, it has become clear that we should help build grantees’ skill to run meetings and engage in consensus-building, given that many of our grantees work in collaboratives, and that their staffs and boards need support to begin discussions about achieving greater equity in their work.

Obviously understanding these needs is just a first step toward inclusion that could more directly impact strategy and decision-making, but it has increased our experience with more adaptive and relational approaches to our work. So my advice? Embrace uncertainty. Commit to keep trying different things and learning from each experience. And, most importantly, don’t let fear dissuade you from opportunities for greater insight and impact that more authentic relationships with grantees can bring.