In the second post of our series of profiles of funders that are exemplary in their provision of non-monetary support to grantees, as assessed by the Grantee Perception Report, we take a look at the S.H. Cowell Foundation. Based in San Francisco, the Foundation works to improve the lives of children living in poverty in Northern and Central California by providing support to strengthen families and communities. Vice President of Grant Programs Lise Maisano spoke with us about how the Cowell Foundation has made assistance to its grantees beyond the check a priority in its strategy.
The rationale for assistance beyond the check
At Cowell, assistance beyond the grant check is seen as fundamental to supporting strong funder-grantee relationships and grantees’ ability to achieve their missions. As Lise Maisano, Vice President of Grant Programs, explains, “We deeply believe in developing long-term respectful relationships with our grantees and that it is important to offer a variety of opportunities that support our grantees’ success.” For staff at Cowell, this means that the provision of assistance beyond the grant check is “as important as the grant” itself and is “hardwired into [their] culture.” As Maisano says, “We know that in order for people to do their best work, they need support on many different levels. We know how important funding is to our grantees. But we have also learned how important it is for our grantees to build their leadership skills and to share their strategies and what works with peers, funders, and other stakeholders.”
Most grantees, especially those that are engaged in Cowell’s place-based, complementary grantmaking, are offered some type of non-monetary assistance. Grantees who take advantage of this assistance tend to be the most motivated in pursuing the assistance and are grantees that the foundation has worked with previously. Cowell believes that providing assistance in this way allows grantees to be their own agents in their leadership and organizational development. As Maisano explains, “They tell us who they want to work with and show us the work plan and budget. When the grant is awarded the grantees are the owners of what they want to learn. They’re responsible for getting their needs met.”
Types of assistance
Cowell provides a wide variety of assistance beyond the grant at various points throughout the grant’s life cycle and employs both internal and external channels to provide this assistance. Forms of non-monetary assistance range from assistance with proposal writing to convenings and site visits to knowledge-sharing to leadership development.
Cowell’s three program staff are the primary providers of the foundation’s non-monetary assistance. At the beginning of grantees’ engagement, Cowell staff members provide most grantees with intensive assistance in developing their proposals. As Maisano explains, “Rarely if, ever, is a proposal submitted and taken directly to the Board. Grantees have a lot of opportunities to refine and focus their requests. This iterative process helps grantees get really clear about what they’re going to do, and why. This process also strengthens their proposal-writing skills, which in turn helps them with other funders, as well. We spend a tremendous amount of time in person, on the phone, via email — it’s built into our process.”
Grantee convenings and site visits
Cowell also hosts convenings and site visits where grantees can share knowledge and best practices. Cowell hosts Leadership Convenings every two years, where 100 grantees focused on place-based work are invited to learn and network with other Cowell grantees doing similar work. As Maisano explains, these two-and-a-half day events provide grantees an opportunity to “reflect, rejuvenate, network and learn new skills.” In addition to Leadership Convenings, Cowell also brings grantees together for subject-focused convenings on a variety of topics, such as family economic success, evaluation, and youth development in affordable housing complexes.
Externally-provided assistance: leadership development
Cowell sees leadership development as essential to the success of its grantees and considers leadership grants as a type of assistance beyond the grant. Awarded through a streamlined process, these grants typically complement and/or supplement existing larger grants in Cowell’s program areas and enable a grantee to participate in a variety of skill-building and organizational development activities, such as building programmatic expertise and skills of individual leaders, inspiring and organizing others, building personnel procedures, enhancing financial and evaluation systems, improving board governance, strategic planning, and succession planning. From connections formed at Cowell staff-driven convenings, grantees can also request funding for a peer-to-peer exchange so they can visit each other and learn about each other’s strategies.
Grantees can look to Cowell’s website for more information regarding the types of non-monetary assistance and resources that the foundation provides. Cowell publishes a list of leadership development resources on its website, along with insights and relevant resources that pertain to the nonprofit sector, family resource centers, K-12 education, youth development, and affordable housing.
Evaluating the impact of non-monetary assistance
In addition to the Grantee Perception Report, Cowell evaluates the assistance it provides through conversations with grantees and through online surveys about their convenings. Other than these methods, Cowell conducts limited direct assessment of its provision of assistance beyond the grant.
The biggest challenges
Because Cowell’s three program staff are the primary providers of the foundation’s non-monetary assistance, budgeting time to develop staff expertise and to devote to providing this assistance can be a challenge. However, Maisano explains that the time the Foundation takes with grantees is more than worth the investment: “How we work with our grantees is as important as the funding. It is not just what we do; it is how we do it that matters. We take our values very seriously — to be grounded in rigor, direct, inclusive, built on connections, supportive of grantee leadership, and founded on knowledge. We understand that the Foundation can only achieve its mission through the work of our grantees and they need support beyond the grant check to achieve their goals.”
This post is the second in a series sharing case studies exemplifying ways in which funders can provide their grantees with effective non-monetary assistance. CEP thanks Wilburforce Foundation for funding the creation of these profiles.