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.

Ask any gemologist what “inclusion” means, and they’ll likely describe an impurity, a blemish in an otherwise perfect, crystalline structure. Too many inclusions, and the shine, luster, and value of a gemstone is greatly diminished.

The gift of “grantee inclusion” we’re talking about in this article series is, of course, different. It’s a more noble idea—an action, actually—that operationalizes the values of diversity and equity, putting them into practice. Research shows us that it leads to grantmaking practices that enable nonprofits to create more impact.

Why is it, then, that grantmakers sometimes get trapped in approaches—distributing grantee surveys, moving boxes on an org chart, or making a one-off grant—that treat inclusion the same way a highly skilled gemcutter would treat it? That is, scrutinize it closely, limit it to a manageable facet of the work, and make sure it doesn’t diminish the lustre of the grantmaker’s track record, image, and reputation.

Grantee Inclusion Is Leadership

In adaptive leadership, leadership is defined by the work you choose to do and the approach you use to accomplish it, not by a title or org chart. Often it involves challenging and adapting small-but-important parts of an organization’s DNA. In this way of thinking, the choice to prioritize grantee inclusion is leadership.

There are certain adaptive leadership techniques and practices that increase the chance your organization will embrace inclusion—indeed, view it as a gift—rather than reject it as foreign DNA.

Get on the Balcony

It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of daily activities. Make time—even just three minutes right now—to reflect and notice patterns within and around you, or “get on the balcony,” as we say. Ask yourself:

  • Is the level of grantee inclusion in my organization sufficient? It’s important to put structures and processes in place to include grantees, but just because they exist doesn’t mean grantmakers are hearing authentic, honest input.
  • Is there a gap between your organization’s behavior and its espoused values? Choosing to focus on inclusion is one thing, but are people at your organization complicit in allowing exclusionary behaviors to continue? Some of these behaviors—such as invitation-only grants, not posting contact information on your website, or not being available to answer application questions—are tough to stop, because they enable other desirable results, like getting money out the door quickly.
  • Are there gaps between what you say you care about and how you behave? If you haven’t worked on anything inclusion-related recently, where are you directing your attention and energy instead, and why? Be honest and curious—not self-critical—in your reflections. Also notice when you feel triggered, bored, or defensive at work. Those moments can signal that an opportunity is at hand to exercise leadership.

Orchestrate Conflict

Grantee inclusion doesn’t tend to jump to the top of our collective must-do list, because when we disrupt cherished norms and shift relationship patterns with grantees, it can generate conflict and resistance. But meaningful grantee inclusion can’t happen without conflict and resistance. They’re signals to drive forward, carefully, not signals to stop.

Reflecting on his foundation’s attempt at grantee inclusion, one grants manager said, “I realize [now] that the more uncomfortable things were, that’s where all the good stuff was happening.” The truth, it’s said, emerges from a good fight between friends.

Here are ways people avoid conflict:

1. Distracting Attention

Examples include:

  • Approaching grantee inclusion with the same, old tools (surveys, data gathering, focus groups) to avoid the feelings of incompetence that can come with trying something new.
  • Creating a “proxy” fight, such as a personality conflict, instead of grappling with the hard decisions at hand.

2. Displacing Responsibility

Examples include:

  • Blaming another department or a senior executive for a lack of attention to grantee inclusion, rather than partnering to figure out how to do more.
  • Delegating the adaptive work to consultants, committees, or task forces that have no real authority to make decisions, rather than risk your own reputation.

When you see conflict emerge, get curious instead of trying to convince or persuade. Ask “what if” questions, such as: What if we allowed [a specific] grantee’s voice to inform our work? What hard choices might we have to make?

Run Experiments, Don’t Problem-Solve

Ford Foundation’s Chris Cordona rightly reminds us that questions of inclusion don’t come wrapped with “easy answers.” One way to answer them, however, is to forgo problem-solving altogether and focus instead on running experiments.

Simply put, experimentation means developing a hypothesis, crafting a set of activities to test it, and then iterating based on what you learn. It means moving away from perfection and “getting it right” toward learning and mobilizing others. When there are no known or easy answers, early hypotheses will likely be wrong. “The practical question,” as statistician George Box says, “is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful?”

First and foremost, experiments should focus on the real work—grantmaking decisions, capacity-building support, grantee onboarding processes—not on creating extra work or work-arounds. Next, they should expose people to external realities, not shield them from the need to adapt. Examples we’ve seen include:

  • A “fail fest” to celebrate and mourn failed grants, creating an environment in which people feel safer to learn
  • A cross-program initiative to surface and work through internal power dynamics
  • A set of initiatives to discover what value grantees see in their relationship with grantmakers
  • Partnerships with peer foundations to share learnings from others’ experiments

Experiments bring unheard voices and narratives to life from within and outside an organization. They generate contradictory views—rather than confirming top-line, superficial messages about the “case” for inclusion—that organizations must deal with to make progress. They push us beyond our comfort zone in ways that require us to develop new skills, relationships, and approaches, not just perpetuate old ways of working.

Embrace the Gift

Grantee inclusion is a gift, but don’t assume it’s an easy one to embrace.

While it’s hard to advocate against the benefits of grantee inclusion, other noble values compete for attention and resources. Cordona writes, “Convenience is often the greatest enabler of inequity”—and, we’d add, exclusion. Oftentimes, the trade-off (real or perceived) is between including authentic grantee voices at the risk of compromising your foundation’s reputation.

At its extreme, greater inclusion involves helping people refashion new professional identities. At its best, it helps us rise above the day-to-day of getting money out the door and reconnect to our job’s meaning.

A program officer we worked with recently said, “Sometimes the voice [of the grantee] looks a lot different than what you expect.” In other words, that “inclusion” in the diamond might just turn out to be the most valuable part of it all.