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How Strong Grantee Relationships Lead to Unexpected Opportunities

Date: April 22, 2021

Emily Young

Executive Director, The Nonprofit Institute at the University of San Diego

Peter Ellsworth

President Emeritus, Legler Benbough Foundation

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Prior to completing its spend down in 2020, the San Diego-based Legler Benbough Foundation worked with grantees in trusting relationships, built over time, for 20 years. Now that our doors are closed, our colleagues at the Foundation have had the chance to look back and appreciate the many benefits of working with grantees in this way.

For one, having trusting relationships with grantees enabled us to act more efficiently and effectively in times of crisis. We also found that it made it easier for us to address issues of power imbalance, equity, and inclusion in our grantmaking.

But we found that perhaps the most significant benefit of having trusting grantee relationships was one that is not as often discussed. In our experience, working closely with grantees and learning from them led to a number of unique funding opportunities that our grantees themselves initiated, and which we otherwise would not have been able to pursue.

Grantees have the local experience, connections, and relationships that enable them to know and understand special needs and opportunities in their area of service. In many cases, these needs and opportunities are not included in a funder’s typical grant cycle, but rather can be identified and capitalized on when the foundation and grantee work together when opportunity arises. Indeed, our model for building effective grantee relationships enabled us to work together with our grantees to develop several high-impact projects.

Building Effective Grantee Relationships

Developing personal relationships with grantees takes time and effort, just as it does to develop any relationship. It is therefore essential to begin this process by determining, realistically, how many focus areas and how many grantees with which you have the time to work effectively. In our experience, the smaller the foundation, the narrower the focus needs to be.

Once you’ve defined each focus, start your grantmaking by investing in a large pool of grantees in each focus area. Then, over time, select those with whom you’ll work for the long term. By initially working with multiple grantees in each of our focus areas, we were able to get to know the grantees — learning about their capacity to execute on their missions, their knowledge and relationships, their experience, and their leadership. Over time, we narrowed the focus to fewer grantees as projects and opportunities became more identifiable.

What is critical in this phase is demonstrating that the foundation is genuinely interested in learning from grantees and working with them. This requires an attitude of humility, expressed through actions and processes that demonstrate understanding and consideration of a grantee’s circumstances, needs, and capabilities. Remember, the grantee also has to select you as a partner they can trust.

After we listened to and learned from our grantees to identify specific areas of need and opportunity in their fields, we worked with them over time to develop longer-term projects. In this phase, we thought of our grantees as partners and treated them as such.

Our foundation has three focus areas in our city: 1) the multiple cultural organizations in Balboa Park, “the jewel of San Diego”; 2) the research and innovation sector of San Diego; and 3) the health, education, and welfare of residents of the Diamond Neighborhoods, a disadvantaged area of San Diego. In each of these focus areas, our strong relationships led to grantee-initiated funding opportunities that were not part of our grant cycle but were important to our grantees’ and our shared goals:

Bringing Together Cultural Institutions to Speak with One Voice

While we were working with all of the individual cultural organizations in San Diego’s Balboa Park, it soon became apparent that what was needed was a vehicle for all of them to come together to address their shared needs and opportunities. We had learned from our grantees that the organizations were not even meeting with each other, and were frequently in competition with one another. Because of our relationships with all of these organizations, some of their leaders were able to come to us together with the idea of helping them set up the Balboa Park Cultural Partnership. We provided funding and worked with this new organization over time as it became the leading voice for all of the institutions under the theme, “One Park, One Team.”

Building Capacity of Residents in a Disadvantaged Neighborhood

As we worked in the Diamond Neighborhoods, it became obvious that what was needed was a means for local voices to be heard on issues that were often being decided elsewhere. One of our grantees came up with an answer: The Urban Collaborative Project. Through this initiative, separate action teams of residents were created to address issues of health, education, and infrastructure both locally in the neighborhood and, over time, in citywide committees. Working with residents through the project, we also had the opportunity to learn more about their perspective on these community issues, which was invaluable to us.

Creating Unique Opportunity for Start-Ups

As a single funder working in a sector dominated by huge research organizations and large universities, we were faced with the problem of how to have an impact with our relatively modest resources. Here again, it was the grantees and our personal relationships with them that provided the answer.

In the case of University of California at San Diego, with a student body of 30,000 and a well-defined development department, there were lots of grant “opportunities” to put our name on new buildings, labs, or other facilities. But in a conversation with the dean of the university’s engineering school, we learned that many promising start-up ideas resulting from the work of professors and students were ending up never acted upon because there was no way for those efforts to get the support they needed. As a result, we worked with the engineering school to put together an accelerator to provide the services necessary for start-ups to get off the ground. This accelerator has led to funding for several start-ups that are now well underway.

As part of our wind-down process, at the urging of others in the field, we prepared case studies to describe our work and capture what we learned from our experiences. These resources provide the detail and context of our work, and also outline the sometimes frustrating, sometimes unsuccessful experiences that we had along the way. Nothing is perfect, and philanthropy is a journey. Yet, when I (Peter) reflect on our two decades of work, two things in particular stand out as very clear to me: grantees are the ones with the best ideas, and getting to work with and learn from these amazing people was, for me, the best part of working in philanthropy.

Peter Ellsworth is president emeritus of the Legler Benbough Foundation. He can be reached at

Emily Young is executive director of the Nonprofit Institute (NPI) at the University of San Diego.

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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