Start by Asking: How One Funder Elevates Non-Grantmaking Support

Steven Green

As a funder supporting organizations that create and provide Jewish learning opportunities, the Jim Joseph Foundation is inherently in a position of power in the funder-grantee relationship. While we acknowledge this reality, we also try to minimize this “power dynamic” when possible. Talented, committed grantee-partners are vital to realizing our aspiration and, guided by a relational approach to grantmaking, we strive to offer them more than just grant support. This can mean offering technical support, supporting data gathering or other research efforts, or filling a void either in the field or in their organization specifically.

In fact, non-monetary grant assistance has been a staple of our successful grantmaking for decades. In the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) 2018 report, Strengthening Grantees: Foundation and Nonprofit Perspectives, researchers noted that 83% of foundation CEOs say that their staff provides direct assistance beyond the grant and 67% enlist a 3rd party consultant to provide that support. Even with those promising numbers, the report shares a stark disconnect between what foundation professionals are offering and what nonprofit CEOs say they actually need. According to the report:

Almost all foundation leaders say that their foundation: 

  • feels responsible for strengthening grantees;
  • cares about grantee organizations’ overall health; and
  • is aware of grantees’ needs.

In contrast, the majority of nonprofit CEOs say: 

  • their foundation funders feel no or little responsibility for strengthening their organization;
  • most foundation funders do not care about strengthening the overall health of their organization; and
  • most foundation funders do not ask about their organization’s needs beyond funding.

The report shared dichotomous perspectives about who makes decisions about consultancies, the nature of ancillary services provided, whether follow-up takes place to the interventions that are provided, and overall responsiveness to requests beyond the dollars granted. While some of this divide can be attributed to communications challenges, more can be attributed to succumbing to the power divide.

Undoubtedly, we have made some mistakes with our grantee-partners that are noted in this report. Operating from an office that in certain cases is thousands of miles away from these partners leaves plenty of room for error and assumption. We have discovered some of these through three different iterations of CEP’s Grantee Perception Report and recognize that there are grantee perspectives that remain un-shared due to the grantee-funder relationship.

Still, relational grantmaking is an attempt to ensure that knowledge-sharing and open communication are prioritized by both funder and grantee. This approach creates more meaningful and impactful investments. These last two pandemic years have shone an additional light on the disparities between the resources of the funders and the grantee-partners. They have also provided an opportunity to reflect and engage in new ways while many programs pivoted or halted, initially. During this time, we have heeded grantee-partners’ pleas for greater support in a few key non-grantmaking areas. This has included:

  • Developing and sharing a video series, Non-Profit Budgeting Best Practices: How Stories are Told and Partnerships are Strengthened Through Numbers in Spreadsheets. The series title captures the oft-overlooked role a budget can play in fostering a positive funder-grantee relationship. We do not offer a prescriptivemethodology for how everyone should present their financial reports. Rather, the practices are intended to offer help in compiling budgets that articulate an organization’s priorities, ambitions, and story. In this regard, the descriptive videos cover areas and questions that grantee-partners have asked us during the Foundation’s years of grantmaking.
  • Providing support for scenario and contingency planning, offering evaluation and research support, and sharing a platform for grantee partners to have professional learning communities. The scenario and contingency planning included ongoing, one-on-one coaching with experts in addition to group learning sessions.
  • Revising our annual survey instruments to determine what other support is needed by our partners that may not have been solicited or voluntarily shared with us previously.

These examples build on some of the Foundation’s long-standing practices, in line with our belief in relational grantmaking. This includes:

Giving space for the grantee-partner to set meeting agendas

This includes opportunities to choose how often to share. Over the last two years in particular, some grantee-partners wanted to check-in with us more — to update us on developments, to think through a challenge together — while others wanted less frequent conversations. The “rate of communication” takes on greater importance when people’s time and energy are stretched thin. By asking how often grantee-partners wanted to connect with us and also by making those interactions as productive as possible, we could calibrate accordingly.

Showing vulnerability

We do not have all the answers, nor do we have to pretend that we do. Whether the grantmaking professional has been in the field for one year or 20, it is a fact that at this very moment, the person with the most information, context, and experience is the practitioner running the organization or specific program being funded. We have the benefit of regularly studying a broader picture than any singular organization can display, but we lack the understanding of the intricacies of every offering.

At the Jim Joseph Foundation, we aspire that Jewish youth, their families, and friends will lead lives filled with connection, meaning, and purpose. To achieve this, we must continue to ask questions of our funding and grantee partners alike: What knowledge and information is needed currently, what do you anticipate needing moving forward, and what has been most useful to your organization in the past? The above examples are just a few of many. We hear from grantee-partners about needs in evaluation, R&D, communication, and many other areas of technical and personnel-based assistance. The best way to learn more about these areas — and to identify others — is to start by asking.

Steven Green is Senior Director, Grants Management and Compliance for the Jim Joseph Foundation.

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