Funders Share Stories of Change, Part Two: Increased Flexibility & Responsiveness

Chloe Heskett & Naomi Orensten

This is part two of three in a CEP blog series in which leaders from eight foundations shared — in their own words — the most important changes they have made at their foundation since 2020 that they plan to sustain going forward. These funders’ stories, which can be read in full here, explore numerous changes on several dimensions. In each post in this series, we will explore changes centered around a particular theme — be it increased focus on advancing equity, greater flexibility and responsiveness, or more listening and collaboration. It’s our hope that the stories collected here foster learning and inspire further action.

For decades, many in philanthropy and nonprofit leadership have called for changes in foundation practice. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, many foundations quickly implemented changes in their practices, including being more flexible with and responsive to their grantees. These changes have been widely discussed, including in CEP’s series of three reports released in late 2020 and, more recently, in Foundations Respond to Crisis: Lasting Change?. As described in this report, most foundation leaders report that they are streamlining processes to reduce the burden on grantees and providing more unrestricted support — changes they say they will sustain. Many also reported increasing their grantmaking budgets in comparison to the prior fiscal year.

In the stories that eight funders shared in this series, many described making such changes, noting a desire to effectively address urgent needs, support their grantees, and ensure that their processes and grantmaking reflect their focus on equity.

Women’s Foundation of Minnesota, for example, launched a COVID-19 Women and Girls Response Fund, making “more than $1 million in emergency grants to 80 organizations across the state to address the needs of women and girls experiencing gender-based violence, to support older women, and to provide short-term financial support for everyday needs.”

In addition, the Foundation increased flexibility in grantmaking practices by ensuring that “100% of WFMN grants are being directed to general operations, allowing nonprofits greater flexibility in a time of uncertainty and heightened need, and for the long-term.” They also noted that they “are dedicated to investing in community through multi-year grantmaking whenever possible.”

The Mary Black Foundation made many changes as well, including those called for in the 2020 pledge, A Call To Action: Philanthropy’s Commitment During Covid-19:

  • Loosening or eliminating restrictions on current grants
  • Making new grants unrestricted
  • Reducing/postponing reporting requirements & site visits
  • Contributing to community-based emergency response funds

Furthermore, the Foundation wrote that “…in response to the pandemic, we converted those [grants] that were not to unrestricted grants, including grants that were for events that had to be cancelled.” They also said that they “increased our giving to exceed our annual payout amount in order to support basic needs, growing mental health concerns, and healthcare and education gaps that widened due to the pandemic.”

Finally, they described making process changes to their grantmaking to address urgent needs brought to the fore by the pandemic:

We also sped up our grantmaking process and pivoted from our usual grantmaking focus to address immediate needs. For example, we used a rapid response grant…to assist people most impacted by the health, social, and economic impacts of the pandemic with basic needs like food and shelter. We also contributed to a small business recovery fund that provided forgivable loans to small businesses that were not eligible or did not have the capacity to apply for the Paycheck Protection Program and other federal relief.

The Walter & Elise Haas Fund wrote about their focus on “…changing our organizational structure and grantmaking…to ensure our work reflects our intention, explicitly and vigorously, to address justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.” This work included “the (re)design of our grant applications, award letters, and transactions.”

In addition, the Fund “allocated from the corpus to fund a [new] racial justice cohort” and “trusted the cohort was doing the work. No proposals. No written reports.” Haas also provided “multiyear, general operating support grants to Bay Area Black-led, community-based organizations and coalitions.”

At the start of 2020, Rose Community Foundation had recently unveiled a new strategic plan. When the pandemic hit, they took action to “shed longstanding practices that no longer served us or our community and lean into our new commitments and aspirations more quickly, deeply, and flexibly than we had imagined possible.”

They shared that:

Wanting to lower the barriers of access and open the door to relevant new organizations, we launched the Foundation’s first large-scale open RFP — accelerating our pivot toward competitive, open, and transparent grant cycles that allow us to better understand and impact the ecosystems in which we are funding.

Finally, Lumina Foundation described making “quick improvements to ease the burden on our grantees, including opening an online grantee portal, instituting electronic payments, and helping to find fiscal partners when needed. We also expanded our Racial Equity and Justice Fund in the wake of the tragic, senseless killing of George Floyd.

In the CEP report, many leaders reported that they plan to sustain many of the changes they have made since early 2020. Similarly, the funders who shared their stories of change in this series also report plans to carry these changes forward. As the Walter & Elise Haas fund put it: “We’re not finished making changes that matter.”

We are grateful to the eight foundations that contributed their stories of change for this series. We truly hope that these rich and candid examples inspire discussion and support foundations to consider what changes they can make to be more impactful, to uplift the communities and grantees with whom they work, and to create a better and more just world.

Chloe Heskett is editor & writer, programming and external relations at CEP. Naomi Orensten is director, research at CEP.

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