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Beyond the Grant: How One Foundation Centered Connection in Giving

Date: February 15, 2024

Amy Breshears

Former Strategic Communications Associate, Rogers Family Foundation

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In 2024, the Rogers Family Foundation (RFF) will conclude its 20-year commitment to Oakland, CA and public education. Over the past year, as we have prepared to wind down, we have written, presented, and shared our practice of providing Beyond the Grant support. CEO Rhonnel Sotelo reflected on our organizational culture and the comprehensive way our team approaches this work. Former Entrepreneur in Residence Jenna Stauffer, whose sole role was to build the capacity of grantee partners, shared what it takes to establish trust and dive deep with grantees. Here, we encapsulate our story, highlighting our two-decade journey and the learnings acquired along the way.

What it Takes to Connect with Community

RFF’s founding CEO Brian Rogers discovered early that much of the advice he’d received from other, more established grantmakers and funders — to build a “Wall of No” — was not aligned with his vision. While keeping grantees at a professional arm’s length would likely make it easier to say “no” to funding requests, Brian wasn’t interested in following the path of his peers; he recognized that doing the work well would require connection. Inspired by civil rights activist Howard Fuller’s description of what it takes to connect with communities, Brian decided that RFF wouldn’t just be about giving, but also doing. What resonated most was that “you need to burrow in to get to the heart of your community. The true connections happen in the tunnels underground.” With that, a core tenet of RFF’s philosophy was born.

The most obvious way our commitment to connection manifested itself was through our Beyond the Grant work. RFF provided this kind of support from the organization’s inception, before understanding “Beyond the Grant” to be a common practice. The definition of Beyond the Grant work is often a broad one: any support provided to a grantee beyond the financial can fall into this category. Communications, networking and relationship building, and staffing coalitions are all examples of ways RFF has lent support. There is no one-size-fits-all approach and the work will look different from one foundation to the next. However, there is one key factor that informed the success of Beyond the Grant work at RFF: trust. Trusting that our grantees know their needs best, and trusting each other that we all had something valuable to contribute.

There are many tactics the RFF team employed to gain the necessary trust from our grantees, but the one that proved most critical was our commitment to listening. We listened to grantees’ goals, struggles, and needs. We listened as they vulnerably shared their barriers and where they felt stuck. We listened when they accepted support beyond the grant, and we listened when they declined. What’s more, we acknowledged and celebrated their successes. This underscored our commitment to being a partner and not just a funder. We also recognized that the leaders of the organizations we funded are the experts on their own needs, and that the way we showed up for them should be entirely informed by this expertise.

Navigating the Funder-Grantee Power Dynamic by Listening Carefully

There are undeniable power dynamics at play between funders and grantees; creating a space where trust can flourish was sometimes challenging. Getting started is an awkward process and can be intimidating to the grantee, so being comfortable with being uncomfortable was invaluable. At times, grantees were uncertain of the specific support to request. How would they know what talents or skills RFF team members had to offer, or the bandwidth the team had in place to lend them? We knew that grantees might hesitate to ask these questions if a certain level of comfort wasn’t reached.

A more complicated challenge comes when a grantee might feel as though future financial support is at risk if they decline Beyond the Grant support. As funders, we needed to be hyper aware of this power dynamic when engaging grantees in this work, curbing any sense of obligation or funder appeasement a grantee may feel. We worked to shift the onus onto ourselves to assuage any worry that asking for what they need, or declining Beyond the Grant support entirely, would mean damaging the relationship. To make this message clear and to create a safe space for open communication, checking our egos and presumptions was essential. We didn’t commit ourselves to the outcome of our offer nor to the grantee’s response; rather, we committed to our work being in service to our grantees and letting them tell us what that looks like.

We also found that, once established, the trusting, communicative relationships we had with our grantees relied on ongoing maintenance and care. The team constantly engaged in active listening and, as best we could, provided the support requested. We remained transparent about the support we could offer; it was imperative to under promise and over deliver. While the abilities of the RFF team were diverse and myriad, they had limitations. We communicated honestly when a task or ask was outside of our capabilities and this honesty served to strengthen our relationships with grantees, not weaken them. It ensured our grantees knew that when we said yes, we would follow through.

Everybody Wins: Growth Opportunities for Grantmaking Staff

It can be easy to deduce how a grantee might benefit from this work, but less obvious is how a grantmaking organization itself benefits. At RFF, all staff were charged with identifying and seizing opportunities to participate in Beyond the Grant work at their agency, employing their skills, capacity, and interests. Supporting grantees allowed team members to stretch beyond what their job descriptions prescribed; to find, grow, and share talents they may not have necessarily known they’d be employing in their roles. To be sure, our program officers did more than execute grants and fulfill their Beyond the Grant responsibilities and expectations; they were also critical conduits to the talent embedded throughout RFF.

Grantees don’t always have the capacity to fulfill their wishlist of to-do items, and tasks such as retreat facilitation, website creation and maintenance, graphic design, Salesforce consultation, or data collection and analysis might not be prioritized. Over time, RFF intentionally built a team full of enthusiastic, mission-committed, and multi-talented individuals who were eager to lend their skills to our grantees, and this further served to exemplify our commitment to being a partner and part of their community. The many different ways RFF team members lent Beyond the Grant support are outlined here: “RFF Beyond the Grant Support Examples.” As former Program Associate Kate Ray (now at Heising Simons Foundation) describes, “RFF allows team members to try new things. I discovered what I can do and acknowledge what I can’t. This is such a meaningful way to support grantees AND the development of your team.”

The nature of philanthropic work is to be of service and contribute to the improvement of our communities. Grantmakers have a unique opportunity to not only serve as a financial wellspring, but to connect with the boots on the ground efforts. At RFF, Beyond the Grant work opened opportunities for these connections to grow richer, deeper, and stronger. This imbued our grantmaking work with a level of meaning we might not have accomplished otherwise, and one that continues to influence us as professionals in philanthropy.

Amy Breshears served as Rogers Family Foundation’s Strategic Communications Associate and now works as an independent communications consultant. Find her on LinkedIn.

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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