Bringing the “Beginner’s Mind” to Funder-Grantee Conversations

Joann Ricci

CEP’s new study, Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives, finds that a gap in understanding exists between CEOs of nonprofits and foundation leaders when it comes to strengthening organizational needs. Since reading the report, I’ve been wondering what our grantees might say about our practices here at the Greater New Orleans Foundation (GNOF) in light of this study.

The organizational effectiveness (OE) department at GNOF, which I lead, serves thousands of urban, suburban, and rural-based nonprofits, grantee partners, and others in southeastern Louisiana through myriad capacity-building learning activities, technical assistance grants, coaching, and consulting. Our foundation also provides general operating support and program-related grants.

When I arrived at the foundation and began this initiative eight years ago, I was responsible for bringing to life our board’s vision to have an organizational effectiveness role that is as equally important a focus as a grantmaking role. The board recognized that the stronger our nonprofit partners are organizationally — in management, program, governance, leadership, and adaptive abilities — the more they will succeed in their mission-related work, making a greater impact on reducing the region’s inequities and increasing organizational sustainability. 

How did I go about designing this work? Listening to nonprofit leaders — both staff and board — was the first step. Countless meetings with grantees, attendance at community meetings where nonprofits would be, and taking every call from nonprofit leaders to talk about this new work comprised the first six months of my job. I set up drop-in coaching sessions for executive directors to talk about their pain points and what was keeping them up at night, and we also conducted surveys with hundreds of grantees and nonprofits now and then to determine priority organizational needs to strengthen the sector.

CEP’s report highlights the gap in perceptions (and realities) between philanthropic leaders and our nonprofit partner CEOs. While the entire report is of value, the first finding in particular for me was most telling: foundations are not as in touch with nonprofits’ needs as they think. While our OE team regularly engages with and listens to our nonprofits, I was left wondering how this finding squares with our grantee partners’ perceptions of us.

As I read deeper about that first finding, I couldn’t help but think of beginner’s mind, the Zen Buddhist practice of opening up one’s mind and freeing one’s self from assumptions so as to be filled with the eagerness that comes from learning a new skill. Beginner’s mind is rooted in the stance of curiosity — starting with questions, not assuming or judging. I think of it as practicing vulnerability. And how vulnerable can we as funders be if we always position ourselves as experts? Beginner’s mind can allow us to step away from being an expert.

How useful and liberating might it be for grantmakers and nonprofits alike to let go of having the right answer and simply listen to one another with equanimity and care? Might we begin to close the gap that the report identifies between foundations, which feel they’re doing a good job in helping, and nonprofits, which feel that foundations don’t care much?

Findings in the report also suggest that there are nonprofit capacity needs beyond what foundation leaders realize, and that nonprofits surveyed feel that most foundation funders do not ask about their organization’s needs beyond funding. (In other words, that funders are out of touch with their real needs.)

As a leadership coach, I practice beginner’s mind. If I don’t, I run the risk of entering a conversation with a grantee thinking I know the answer to their problems. What information might I miss when I assume I know an answer? How helpful is it to take the expert stance in a conversation with a grantee? What does that signal to the nonprofit leader?

What if the next time you meet with a grantee to explore how your foundation might be of service, you only ask questions about the grantee’s needs? Here’s a step-by-step approach to consider:

Start the conversation by asking the grantee this question: Think about walking out the door after this conversation has ended. What would make this time most worthwhile for you?

Continue with: What are your pain points in leading and managing your organization? If you could wave a magic wand and get what you needed, what would that be? Why this? How can we make it easier for you to do your job? What else do you want to share? What’s the best way for us to lend a hand?

As leadership author Mike Myatt suggests, when the nonprofit leader responds to your questions, listen for opportunity so you can work with the grantee to co-create a plan for how you can assist. Follow their lead, as they are the experts and wisdom holders of their own agency and context.

Being an “in-touch” grantmaker takes time, patience, and both ears. Listening is a muscle that we all need to grow. Philanthropy is populated by experts and as such, we are hot-wired to provide answers, offer solutions, and fix problems. We’re do-gooders and we want to help. Often times, though, the best help may come in simply asking powerful questions and listening. 

I intend to share the CEP report with some of our nonprofit grantee partners. I encourage you to do the same. I’m thinking of a few questions to get the conversation going, and then I’m going to sit back and practice beginner’s mind — listening not with judgement or knowing, but only with curiosity and openness. I wonder what might happen.

Joann Ricci is vice president of organizational effectiveness at the Greater New Orleans Foundation. Follow the foundation’s organizational effectiveness team on Twitter at @GNOFstrongNPOs.

Looking for more on strengthening grantees? Join CEP and a panel of foundation leaders on Monday, October 29 from 3:30-4:30pm ET for a webinar discussion of what foundations can do to best support and strengthen grantees, leaders, and networks. Register here.

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