The decades-long trend in grantee feedback should compel foundations to delve deeply into their fundamental interactions and the related guiding principles that shape them. To some, fundamentals seem obvious or mundane, but for exceptional practitioners and organizations in any field, day-to-day fundamentals and their guiding principles comprise the engine that drives excellence. They understand and then do the “simple” things exceptionally well. While generally humble, the strongest know they are good at what they do and can articulate precisely how and why they are exceptional.
Over the last 15 years or so, philanthropy has progressed considerably. Strains of the “hail fellow, well met” form of grantmaking will always exist, but this relic has been drummed out of most professionally staffed foundations. Simplistic hands-off, collect, select, and write-a-check approaches remain, but these, too, have been marginalized. Although naïve or arrogant agendas will never be eliminated, the more extreme cases also appear to be dwindling.
Instead, foundations are tackling increasingly complex challenges with sophisticated models for both grant giving and evaluation. Enhanced strategies for meaningful collaboration and impact have evolved as well. Many foundations make good faith efforts to resolve grant-related difficulties. Obstacles and issues that inhibit best philanthropic practice are now identified regularly with potential solutions explored and implemented.
Yet, there remains the simultaneous accumulation of less flattering grantee perceptions. A recent example is CEP’s 2014 report, Hearing From Those We Seek To Help, which indicates only 38% of nonprofit leaders believe funders have “a deep understanding” of their intended beneficiaries’ needs.
How can the sector continue its progress while reversing the trends in grantee feedback? Perhaps, the growing complexity of foundations’ external endeavors overshadows or distracts from internal complexities, which, in turn, clouds interactions with grantees. Therefore, we may need a framework to examine philanthropic fundamentals.
A starting point could be to acknowledge fully the internal complexities of foundation work. Since foundations are unique and pursue a range of disparate interests, their approaches differ widely. Fortunately, there are core “common denominators” or “philanthropic DNA” which allow for a deep examination of how a foundation and/or the sector might frame conversations related to grantee interactions.
The day-to-day art of philanthropy requires balance. To some degree, all foundations must balance process, relationships, and expertise. Each forms a subculture. Standing alone, each is relatively easy to implement. Blending all three, however, is exponentially more difficult. Each has a cause and effect upon the other. How these cultures are balanced within a foundation, at both the staff and board levels, determines grants awarded and, ultimately, the degree of a foundation’s long-term impact. Each culture is nuanced and offers positives and negatives. Each provides checks and balances for the other two. Balanced properly, the blended cultures of process, relationship, and expertise provide internal discipline and creative tension to drive philanthropic excellence. If imbalanced, issues arise.
A healthy culture of process goes well beyond grant management software, deadlines, and other administrative concerns. Its importance can be overlooked often relative to relationships and expertise. A strong process requires trust in its design and allows for a logical, fair, and rational decision model. It provides significant internal discipline to impose an unbiased, inclusive, and comprehensive review of proposals. An effective process requires a foundation to challenge its assumptions and maintain objectivity continually in both the relationships it develops and the expertise upon which it relies. Done well, it produces calibrated guidelines that do not hinder creativity and make possible the discovery of “hidden gems” within the pool of prospective grantees. Done poorly, process is either an afterthought or it can drag all involved into the minutiae, resulting in bureaucratic guidelines, impractical evaluation demands and burdensome reporting requirements. The difference between a strong and poor process can be slight and requires vigilance.
An effective culture of relationship allows foundations to provide an inclusive, enhanced experience to grant seekers. It helps cushion the unavoidable power dynamic and exerts foundation leadership in a gentler, more collaborative manner. It is a second step towards the discovery of hidden gems. It is the portal for critical grantee expertise and the discovery of what matters most to those seeking support. Healthy, unbiased relationships allow a foundation to set reputations aside, move past the lead fundraisers to develop a deep understanding of needs, and evaluate grant seekers on the real basis of their programs and people. Overplayed, the culture of relationship can trump process and devolve into a biased situation where foundations “fund their friends” and lose out on potentially stronger grants to those who are declined or never bother to apply.
Used properly in the context of a broader philanthropic expertise, program area expertise requires no justification. It informs process and relationships to drive thoughtful foundation decisions both near and long. However, the culture of expertise can also become a counterintuitive trap that limits long-term potential. Since it often sounds more compelling, it becomes too easy to default to expertise in a manner that overwhelms process and relationships. Allowed to dominate, foundation-centered expertise eclipses grantee input and limits a foundation’s potential to the near-term scope of its own particular experts rather than the long-term benefit found in the 360-degree marketplace of ideas. It ignores how many times we hear, “Experts were surprised….” Without the counterbalances of process and relationship, a culture of expertise can stray too quickly and easily towards foundation arrogance or the convenience of prescriptive approaches, which alienate and/or limit potentially strong grantees.
The ever-present interplay and causal effects between process, relationships, and expertise shape all foundations’ interactions with grantees, the proposals they submit, and the degree of enthusiasm with which they execute their funded endeavors. These checks and balances require constant oversight and, therefore, provide a crosscutting framework worthy of deep examination and conversation throughout the sector. They require trust in a strong set of guiding principles for grantmaking. Foundation-level staff and board conversations around these issues should generate a number of significant strategic choices with long-term ramifications, while sector-level conversations and research into these issues may generate a fundamental leap forward. Persistent issues require fundamentally sound, evergreen solutions.
William Keator is the former vice president for programs at The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, where he serves currently in an advisory role.