Exploring Openness through Listening and Learning

Joanne Kelley

When I decided to make a career pivot from journalism to philanthropy, one nonprofit leader remarked to me that I was “going to the dark side.” In the newsroom, the dark side always meant a public relations gig. But in this case, it was a commentary on working with foundations.

Our mission at Colorado Association of Funders has long been to bring people, information, and resources together to promote effective and responsible philanthropy throughout the state. When I landed here almost a decade ago, we were doing this mainly by connecting funders with one another. But we knew that we also needed to figure out how to bridge the divide between funders and the organizations they support.

It became clear we had to start working harder to spark dialogue and increase understanding for the betterment of communities throughout Colorado. And we’ve tried repeatedly to convene members of the nonprofit and funding sectors to do just that.

We recently took the time to dig deeper into this work.

Thanks to the support of the Fund for Shared Insight and a partnership with the United Philanthropy Forum, we began an effort in Colorado aimed at encouraging openness and feedback in our sector, with the goal of increasing both foundation and nonprofit effectiveness. The premise was two-fold: foundations can make the most difference when they share what they learn from their work, listen to what others have to say, and act on what they hear. Nonprofits also have a role to play in listening to, learning from, and acting on what they hear from the people they’re seeking to help.

We asked a diverse group of foundation and nonprofit leaders throughout the state to be part of a cohort to help us think through what we might be able to accomplish. As much as we were hoping to break new ground, the interviews and conversations kept coming back to basics that still needed to be addressed.

Three general themes emerged:

1. First, it’s all about relationships. Strong partnerships built on trust allow foundations and nonprofits to listen to each other and accomplish their missions and objectives in a more purposeful way.  Orton Family Foundation, for instance, took the unusual step of bringing almost two dozen grantees from around the country to a board meeting at its headquarters, where they could describe directly to the board exactly what about the foundation’s practices they see as working or not working — and what they’d like to see in the future.

2. Second, nonprofits want funders to be open and institute practices that mitigate the funder-grantee power dynamic. While nonprofits are intrigued by the prospect of foundations being more open about what they’re learning from their work, they consistently placed a priority on what they see as a need to clarify the funding-seeking process in the first place. When applicants’ requests for funding are declined, simply hearing that there are a lot of requests and not enough money to go around doesn’t help nonprofits learn what they can do better next time.  “If it’s a terribly written grant, I want to know that,” a nonprofit executive in one of our focus groups said. “Were we close? Or were we way off base?”

We also heard lots about the need to mitigate the power dynamic that exists between funders and nonprofits. Nonprofits, of course, require ongoing resources to pursue their missions. Because foundations have those resources, they’re in the position of deciding how to invest them — and in some cases shifting their priorities and moving on to new things. Aside from acknowledging the imbalance, nonprofits we heard from offered more practical advice for funders that may sound familiar: provide general operating support, invest in the professional development of nonprofit staff, and provide long-term funding. Multiyear, general operating support grants show trust and allow for more honest conversations about what’s working and what should perhaps be approached differently. 

3. Finally, organizations that build an internal culture of learning are more likely to be ready to share what they learn with others. Funders and nonprofits are thinking about how to share successes and “lessons learned” with colleagues, peers, donors, community members, and other stakeholders. According to one foundation executive, fruitful conversations start with the question, “Why did this work?” People get energized about that type of reflection, which can help lay the groundwork to talk about what has gone wrong. Giving air time to successes can lead to equally candid conversations about disappointments.

We attempted to summarize all of our conversations and interviews in our publication, “Exploring Openness.” While the findings are by no means meant to be conclusive or prescriptive, they’ve provided us with a starting point for a series of more pointed conversations among our partners and in our sector. We hope others will also share with us what they’re learning as our sector continues to grapple with these issues.

Joanne Kelley is CEO of Colorado Association of Funders, a regional philanthropy-serving organization providing educational programs, peer networks and advocacy for a diverse membership of foundations, funders and donors. Follow her on Twitter at @JKelleyCO.

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