A handful of experiences have significantly changed the course of my 25 years of work in the nonprofit sector. One might assume that as president and COO of a national organization, pivotal moments would primarily fall into categories like “strategic breakthroughs” or “big wins.” But one of my most important experiences was less flashy—and I have grantmakers to thank for it.
I landed my first nonprofit job in 1991, in development. Like many fundraisers, I didn’t set out to become one; I fell into it. I spent the first few years writing grant proposals, appeal letters—you name it—and concluded that fundraising, especially with foundations, is all about the written word.
Fast-forward more than a decade. My career expanded into other roles, including program and people management. Shortly after landing at Sports4Kids (now Playworks), our founder, Jill Vialet, mentioned a potential grant opportunity from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF). I shot my hand up to volunteer. Writing was my thing. Surely I could make a contribution.
With the help of several others, we succeeded! In 2005, RWJF made a significant grant for Playworks’ national expansion. I enjoyed the process so much I volunteered again, this time to support ongoing communication with the foundation. I figured it would be more of the same—written reports, right?
Not exactly. Over the next 10 years, the program, finance, evaluation, and communications teams at RWJF taught me how deep and meaningful grantmaker-grantee relationships can be. I’m not sure if this approach to grantees is a policy at RWJF or simply the working style of the many people with whom we interacted, but either way, the partnership significantly and positively influenced the course of Playworks’ evolution.
Jill and I initially approached our monthly check-in calls with RWJF as opportunities to showcase how great we were. I shared highlights, stayed silent on challenges, and tried to seem as impressive as possible. From my vantage point, it was going really well!
Then one day, we hit a real bump in the road—a mountain, actually. Financial projections we’d made in the abstract weren’t coming true, including cash flow and regional fundraising. It was complicated and distressing, so our tone on the next call was less than chipper, though we weren’t forthcoming about why.
When we finished sharing the few highlights we had, our program officers asked: “What’s keeping you up at night?”
What? I knew they liked us, and we’d begun to form a relationship beyond official roles, but this sounded like they really cared about how we were experiencing the work day-to-day. When we somewhat hesitantly described the situation, they responded, “How can we help?”
I wasn’t certain what they meant—surely not more money! I was worried about sharing too much. So I replied, “I’m not sure. What do you mean?” They said they could ask their finance team to help us understand the dynamics of our financial model as it was scaling. They offered to explore solutions to our growing need for credit to support cash flow. And they reassured us they were standing right next to us through whatever this mini-crisis might bring.
That was a pivotal moment. I realized then that our relationship could be one of mutual effort toward our scaling goal. Our program officers viewed their purpose largely as one of support to ensure that we succeeded.
Playworks made it over that mountain. And as the mountain range grew over time, RWJF continued to position itself alongside us, engaging teams at the foundation to help us learn. We came to trust their offers as genuine, not tests to see if we were worthy of their investment.
Because of that shift, I learned to bring challenges straight to our program officers at RWJF (and other funding partners) as fast as possible so that we could access its extremely helpful expertise and networks before things really got bad. We benefitted from additional, concrete support, including relationships with outside evaluators and communications firms.
The depth of this partnership made me realize that honest and authentic relationships are possible with all grantmakers and donors.
At Playworks, we focus on building that kind of connection with each grantmaker. When we approach potential funders, we gently ask questions and share insights to see how foundation staff will react. Sometimes it’s clear the grantmaker will continually test our worth as a grantee. Other times, grantmakers greet our transparency with open arms. Our most productive and satisfying partnerships, regardless of grant size, have emerged from a mutual appreciation for openness and honest sharing.
Playworks now enjoys several grantmaker partnerships like this. One notable example is the Einhorn Family Charitable Trust (EFCT). This family foundation’s mission is to help people get along better. The small staff not only walks the walk in their work with grantees, but also learns about and explores solutions for scaling-related challenges so that they can more actively support their grantees.
Our partnership with EFCT is focused on achieving large-scale change. That includes both scaling our innovation—placing more Playworks programs into schools—and becoming an organization that can support schools in sustaining the change over time. This isn’t about building a bigger Playworks; with EFCT’s partnership, it’s about continually making progress and building a sustainable movement
EFCT staff has dug in deeply with folks in the field to figure out what the core insights are behind large-scale change. They have personally connected with other grantmakers and consultants who have experience with large-scale change to gain insight, and made those relationships available to Playworks and other grantees so that we can all learn. The foundation has also taken these two concrete, enormously helpful steps:
- With the support of the Billions Institute, EFCT created an education grantee cohort to learn about large-scale change. Rather than demand collaboration, it is urging each grantee to build capacity in the presence of others who face similar challenges. Collaboration is evolving organically.
- The foundation also asked Playworks to look carefully at our operation, and determine how robust or fragile it is in light of our ambitious plan. EFCT asked tough questions about our ability to attract and retain talent, our technology, our operational systems, and other capacities that are not best-in-class. Because we have such a trusting relationship, I know these questions are not meant to trip us up. They are designed to help us avoid falling down later and to identify where to place our focus. Ultimately, EFCT’s general operating support will be more effective, because the foundation understands the areas where we need to improve most.
These grantmaker partnerships have enabled Playworks to achieve greater impact and allowed me personally to develop more capacity to lead our organization effectively. I encourage every grantmaker to consider actively moving into the roles of advocate and partner for your grantees. Demonstrate your willingness to help address challenges by offering access to your network of experts. Bring grantees together (even without you in the room!) to share best practices and solutions to common challenges. Be transparent about how much you are continually evaluating grantees, as opposed to helping them address tough challenges. And above all, ask, “What is keeping you up at night?” and “How can we help?” You’ll see a difference in grantee relationships that will translate to impact.