Putting Grantees In the Center of Your Map

This is the second post written by Paul Beaudet of Wilburforce Foundation on the complex relationship between funders and grantees. Last week in Doing Less with Less, he raised the issue of unrealistic expectations by some funders that nonprofit organizations would maintain their prior level of activity despite the impact of the economic downturn and the subsequent recession. He discussed alternatives to this practice and what he calls a shift from transaction-based grantmaking to interaction-based grantmaking. This week, Paul expands on that proactive approach for funders, focusing on the effect of using strategy to shape funders’ work with grantees. That requires a greater investment of time and attention on the part of funders, but in the example of Wilburforce, suggests greater effectiveness and progress toward achieving mission-driven goals.


The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) defines foundation strategy as “a framework for decision-making that is 1) focused on the external context in which the foundation works, and 2) includes a hypothesized causal connection between use of foundation resources and goal achievement.”

Loosely restated, this says 1) foundation strategy should focus on the change that you are trying to make in the world, and 2) any logical person should be able to see the connection between how you spend your time and money and that change.

Most foundations are able to articulate one or more goals– ending homelessness, building a more just and sustainable world, eradicating disease – to name a few examples. Many also acknowledge that these goals are ultimately achieved individually and/or collectively by the grantees in which we invest. But very few foundations explicitly include grantee-specific outcomes in strategic plans, outcome maps, logic models and theories of change.

In our early years, Wilburforce didn’t do that either. We do now, and it has transformed that way we approach our grantmaking.

Wilburforce Foundation was founded in 1991, addressing a variety of environmental causes. In 1998, we created a strategic framework to prioritize the protection of specific, critical habitats in Western North America. Our plan focused on audacious long-term goals, such as protecting the last remaining pristine places, and assuring strong and lasting public support for wilderness preservation. We assumed that if we picked the right grantees and they reported the right types of short-term successes, we could make a leap of faith and assume we were having a longer-term impact. This approach was dissatisfying to our staff and board. We knew we could do better.

So, in 2004, we decided to refresh our strategy and develop deeper understandings of the ecological, social and political contexts of the places we were striving to protect. We realized that the vast majority of our grantees were receiving consistent annual support from us. We were increasingly relying on these grantees to provide on-the-ground wisdom that informed our work. And we were stepping up our investments in capacity building to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of these partners.

We began scanning for the latest thinking on foundation effectiveness, and encountered a monograph that led to a “Eureka!” moment. The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership’s report Agile Philanthropy: Understanding Foundation Effectiveness, included a logic model that showed a causal relationship between a foundation’s investments and its desired social change linked to grantee relations, grantee capacity and grantee outcomes.

The Wilburforce outcome map and logic model was built on this framework, and describes the causal links in our strategic plan by more clearly highlighting the importance of grantees in achieving our goals.

By organizing our work in this way, we are better able to describe the logic of our approach to long-term social change:

  • Grantee relations: Since grantees are partners, we must communicate clearly, consistently and frequently to better understand each other’s goals and strategies, develop trust, and address opportunities and/or threats that inevitably arise. We often learn more about issues, strategies and tactics from our grantees than they do from us. We hired additional staff to ensure that our foundation had sufficient capacity to nurture grantee relationships, and we developed processes to shift from transaction-based to interaction-based grantmaking. We also consistently use CEP’s Grantee Perception Reports to provide feedback about how well we’re doing.
  • Grantee Capacity: Using what we learn from our grantees, we feel better equipped to make smart investments in their programmatic and operational capacity. We invest heavily in capacity building service providers that offer customized consulting, coaching and training in leadership development, fundraising, financial management, human resource management, strategic planning, and engagement technology. We also underwrite and share conservation and social science.
  • Grantee Results & Sustained Social Change: If grantees are receiving the support they need to sustain their operations and programs, these organizations will likely be better able to engage in effective work that creates change. Wilburforce also has a better sense of the return on our investments since we can make a logical connection between what we do and what our grantees achieve.

In practice, Wilburforce starts with the change that we desire, which, stated simply, is to create a network of protected habitats that sustains wildlife populations. We select priority regions based on conservation science, and work to identify the local advocates who have, or can develop, the capacity to respond to opportunities and threats to these ecoregions.

One of the earliest places that we fully embraced the Agile Philanthropy model was in the Great Basin. Nevada and Oregon sit at the heart of this remarkable landscape, which contains some of the wildest, most remote lands in the continental U.S.

When we began funding in the Great Basin, there were a few underfunded organizations with passionate leaders working in a region with enormous opportunities and not much history of public lands conservation. As we refined our strategy and shifted to more “interactional” (and less transactional) grantmaking, foundation staff attended science and strategy meetings, grantee events, and field trips to increase our knowledge of our grantees, their work, and the landscapes they are protecting.

As we forged stronger working relationships with our grantees, we learned about their need for:

  • Greater inter-organizational collaboration;
  • Scientific identification of on-the-ground priorities;
  • Leadership development;
  • General support funds;
  • Membership development and fundraising skills;
  • Board capacity;
  • Technological capacity.

We brought in a team of talented capacity builders at Training Resources for the Environmental Community (TREC), whose associates have deep experience in conservation advocacy and are trusted by our grantees. TREC developed a Regional Conservation Initiative of coaching and training opportunities that targeted services to four organizations with tremendous potential to advance a conservation agenda.

We also brought together a blue-ribbon panel of science experts from academia, federal agencies, and grantee organizations to develop a useful tool for our grantees to prioritize landscapes. And we provided significant, multi-year general support funding, affording the organizations greater stability and staff retention, and the ability to sustain long-term relationships with important constituencies and decision-makers.

Since Wilburforce began funding in the Great Basin, our grantees have helped protect millions of acres of federally designated wilderness. Wildlife refuges have been expanded, new National Conservation Areas have been established, and hundreds of millions of dollars have been allocated for private lands acquisition and habitat improvements on our public lands. And they’re not done yet. Our grantees are ready to use the relationships they’ve built to ensure that renewable energy development on public lands protects wildlife habitat while decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels.

Wilburforce can only succeed if our grantees succeed. And our grantees can succeed only if they are given the funding, tools and resources they need to do their work. By placing grantees at the heart of our outcome maps, we can focus on strengthening relationships and building capacity to empower grantees to achieve the outcomes that ultimately contribute to our shared goals.


Paul Beaudet is Associate Director of Wilburforce Foundation and a member of CEP’s Advisory Board.

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