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10 Years On: What We’ve Learned, Thanks to You

Date: June 29, 2023

Christy Connolly

President and CEO, PATH Foundation

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When it was first suggested that we share some of our thoughts related to our most recent — and remarkably positive — Grantee Perception Survey (GPR), I struggled. It felt awkward to promote practices that we learned from you, our peers, and which are practiced by so many.

In fact, in our 10th anniversary year, we have so many foundations to thank for their words of wisdom, invitations for site visits, and open sharing of information. We must have visited 10 foundations in our first year and several more since then. When a foundation hands you their grant guidelines and says to just put your name in place of theirs, you gain an appreciation quickly for the family of philanthropy. We are so grateful.

In that same spirit of sharing, though, we wanted to offer what has worked for us. Through our 10 years, we’ve routinely assessed our progress through governance assessments, grantee surveys, and community health needs assessments. Most recently, we used the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) Grantee Perception Survey. Here are a few of our practices that have been affirmed through these tools.

It’s all about relationships and collaboration. Over time, we have found that establishing open and ongoing conversations with our grantees is paramount to achieving successful outcomes. Our first step with any new grantee is to have an introductory meeting, consisting of a very informal conversation between the nonprofit and the program officer. Where are there common goals? Which existing grant opportunities make sense, if any? For us, the vast majority of our grants are developed in partnership with funder and nonprofit organizations.

As an example, when mental health was identified as a top priority in our footprint, a stakeholder collaborative was developed to create a strategic action plan for the community. PATH was both convener and supporter of the facilitation, but not the owner of the plan or primary driver of the work. We followed a similar path for senior services and for transportation.

In a similar vein, and based on learnings from an earlier CEP survey, we were already shifting to general operations grants. In fact, in the height of the pandemic, that is largely what we did. In many cases the grants were unsolicited, and some of our first grants were distributed to shelters and food banks within 10 days of the World Health Organization’s global pandemic declaration. We think the very necessary funding for unrestricted general support was one of the reasons we scored in the 98th percentile for exhibiting trust in the grantee organization. With very skinny application and reporting requirements, we seek to demonstrate our trust in our partners.

Some of our most impactful work is in the space beyond grantmaking. Organizational resiliency is a significant strategy for us. 74 percent of our surveyed grantees indicated that our non-monetary support was a major benefit for them.

In our earliest years, we formed a partnership with The Center for Nonprofit Excellence (CNE), based in Charlottesville, VA. We wanted a capacity building resource for our nonprofit sector that promoted growth and learning, and we wanted a space that felt safe for our nonprofits to share their challenges. CNE has offered leadership circles (executive and emerging), classes related to everything from board governance to budgeting and curation of equity resources and programs, and more. They maintain a full-time presence in our PATH Resource Center, which also offers meeting space for our community and pro bono nonprofit office space.

We also added a Volunteer Hub providing tools and resources to connect nonprofits to valuable, skill-based volunteers and those willing to put in a few hours outside of their expertise areas. A separate Community Link service offers every member of the community access to a navigator that can assist them with information on anything from local support groups to transportation alternatives and translation services to financial assistance, and everything in between.

Recently, we added an Employee Assistance Program that is available for free to all our nonprofits. The program offers access to various types of assistance, with everything from initial counseling sessions to recommendations on moving companies and helping first-time homebuyers to substance use referrals. It was very nominal in cost for PATH but routinely cited as a greatly appreciated benefit for employees, particularly in the throes of a pandemic and overwork.

Contributing to field knowledge benefits both funders and grantees. In addition to grantmaking and organizational resiliency, we’ve sought opportunities to do research and empower our nonprofits with information. We’ve conducted a study of philanthropy in our area — what is on the mind of donors? What would be helpful to them as they think of a philanthropic plan?

We also supported the research behind a nonprofit study to help the philanthropic sector respond to the changing needs of our nonprofits. Not surprising is the ongoing need for unrestricted support, but the evolving nature of volunteerism was a highlight in both studies and allowed for rich conversation among each group.

Separate from our area grantees, the PATH Foundation was active in establishing the Virginia Funders Network, and PATH Partnerships serves as its fiscal agent. Adding a philanthropic membership network to Virginia has expanded relationships and partnerships.

So, where do we go from here? The last survey was very affirming, but we can always do better for our community. In short, we heard more time, more community, and more celebration from our grantee partners.

Some of the action items from this latest survey are to give more in-person time to our nonprofit leaders. We thought we were giving our nonprofits a break by not doing site visits when they actually wanted us to be there with them and to celebrate together. We all experienced a sense of loss of community during the pandemic. Routine phone check-ins, ice cream popups, and more are on the horizon.

A relatively inexpensive grant opportunity was our Better Together grants. A $2,500 donation to have an event that simply brought people together. We recently held a nonprofit social at an area winery where more than 60 people gathered. It was such a great opportunity to connect again and celebrate the wonderful work being done by our grantees. Several folks responded that they met future partners at the event, and they loved the time to revel in community without having to plan and work the event like they do many fundraisers. More of this is coming, too!

Our next big change is actively pursuing multi-year grants. Our research has provided much support for the practice but little evidence of how to operationalize. We’d welcome your feedback and suggestions if this is a space you occupy.

Building on the success of the Employee Assistance Program offering, we’d also love to find a way to bring affordable health insurance to our nonprofit partners. Have you done this? If so, we’d love to hear from you.

Perhaps the highest compliment we found in the last GPR, which had a 77 percent response rate, was the score of 6.81 of 7 on the perceived impact the foundation has on its community. For a place-based funder, there couldn’t be a greater reward than to be in the 100th percentile here.

We are looking forward to the next decade and beyond. We are so grateful for the assistance through this first decade and anxious to do even better by our community with the help of our philanthropic family.

Christy Connolly is the President/CEO of the PATH Foundation which serves Culpeper, Fauquier, and Rappahannock counties in Virginia. Find the PATH Foundation on LinkedIn or find out more about the Foundation here.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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