Rules of Engagement

Some question whether the push for foundations to have well-developed theories of change, goals, and strategies may have the unintended consequence of distancing philanthropy even more from those on the front lines.  But instead I would suggest that the way you engage with and relate to grantees and others must be thoughtfully constructed based on how you think about your role as a grantmaker. 

These thoughts were prompted by a session at the GEO conference entitled “Strategic Philanthropy and Effective Grantmaker-Grantee Relationships.”  The session revolved around a series of framing questions regarding the roles of foundations in their dealings with grantees.  The questions (A sample: “Should funders be problem solvers or social investors?”) spurred a lively discussion among the audience and presenters Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Sean Stannard-Stockton, author of the influential blog Tactical Philanthropy.

The back-and-forth was friendly (i.e., no fisticuffs ensued), but Brest and Stannard-Stockton at times offered up a fascinating duality of views.  Where Brest is a strong believer in foundations having clear strategies and well-wrought theories of change, Stannard-Stockton advocates an approach where the grantee, not the grantmaker, has a theory of change.  In his view, the role of funders isn’t to design or frame solutions but to invest in high-performing organizations engaged in problem-solving work. 

Interestingly, many members of the audience pushed back against the session’s focus on either/or questions.  It seemed many of the grantmakers in the room preferred to see their organizations as both social investors and problemsolvers.  Foundation strategy is important, people seemed to be saying, but it should be based on a healthy respect for the views, perspectives, and expertise of grantees. 

But the way you engage with grantees depends on what you’re doing and how you view your role.  For example, in the Paul Brest model, you would (hopefully) develop and continually upgrade your foundation’s strategy and theory of change based on active outreach to and engagement with grantees and others.  You would want a sense from these audiences of how they believe your foundation can make a difference in solving problems. 

In the Stannard-Stockton model, on the other hand, engagement might be driven by another set of questions.  As a social investor, you might engage with nonprofit leaders, residents, and other on-the-ground experts about what organizations or networks are doing the best work in a given area or community, and how you can help them get even better results.

The takeaway for grantmakers: Think about how your organization views its role in the world, and then consider what that suggests about how you should be reaching out to grantees and others to engage them as more active partners in your work. 

There’s no debating the importance of relying on the insights and involvement of the people closest to the problem you hope to address.  The question is how to do it best given your goals and mission and how you view the role of your organization in the process of public problem solving.

Kathleen P. Enright is President and CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

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Disclaimers and Disclosures: The views expressed in the CEP blog by guest bloggers are entirely their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Center for Effective Philanthropy.

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