The two of us were reminiscing recently about the first time we sat down with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) team. It was in 2003, just a few years after CEP got its start. We immediately saw CEP’s big datasets and rigorous research as great means for helping funders hold up a mirror — and see truth.
CEP’s data-driven approach to influencing donor practices is the ideal complement to the story-driven approach we’ve taken in our work with the Leap Ambassadors Community. For the past two years, we’ve been shining a bright spotlight on positive-outlier funders who are deeply invested — financially and in many other ways — in the performance of their grantees. Recently, the Leap Ambassadors Community published the eighth profile in its “Funding Performance” series. It’s an in-depth look at how Jeff and Tricia Raikes have applied a “growth mindset” to their philanthropic journey.
The eight funders we’ve profiled — Raikes Foundation, Einhorn Family Charitable Trust, Impetus-PEF, the Blagrave Trust, philanthropist Duncan Campbell, Mulago Foundation, Weingart Foundation, and Venture Philanthropy Partners — are very different in terms of issue interests, geography, age, structure, and size. But looking across all of these profiles, we’re starting to see some clear common denominators that we believe all funders should consider if they want to be as effective as they are generous:
- Effective foundations have talented, empathetic leaders. The Leap Ambassadors’ core definitional document, The Performance Imperative, calls “courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership” its preeminent pillar of effective nonprofit practice. The same thing is true for foundations. The profiled foundations have leaders who aren’t just smart and strong but also empathetic. It’s probably not a coincidence that many of them came to their foundation roles after spending significant time on the grant-seeker side of the funding equation.
- Effective foundations exemplify a “growth mindset.” These foundations have developed expertise in the issues they care about, but they also have the humility to recognize that they have a lot to learn from those working at the ground level, those whom they hope to benefit, and researchers testing hypotheses about what works. They see their opportunity to learn and improve as one of the most energizing parts of their privileged jobs — and are eager to share their learning with others. As Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist who coined the term “growth mindset” put it, “Why waste time proving … how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them?”
- Effective foundations help grantees strengthen their organizations, not just programs. They typically provide grantees with flexible, multiyear funds because they recognize that these are the precious resources that enable grantees to strengthen the organizational muscles they need to deliver meaningful, measurable results over the long term. These funders are also likely to build staff capacity — and borrow consultant capacity — to help grantees strengthen their boards, develop their leadership talent, and build systems for continuous improvement.
- Effective foundations cultivate strong, trusting relationships with grantees. Whether they use the term “partner” or not, they don’t see grantees as mere contractors. They see their grantees — and treat them — as professionals whose insights, expertise, and efforts are critically important for fulfilling the foundation’s own mission. “Trusting, supportive, honest relationships are what make it possible for us to be true partners to organizations that are working to become higher-performing organizations,” says Einhorn Executive Director Jenn Hoos Rothberg. “And high performance is what makes it possible for them — and, by extension, us — to achieve more impact in the world toward our shared vision and goals.” (For more on this the topic of trust-building between funders and grantees, please check out this recent post.)
- Effective foundations go to bat for their grantees with other funders. Nearly all foundations encourage their grantees to become more “sustainable,” but only the best roll up their sleeves to help their grantees line up additional resources from other public and private donors. In the words of Mulago Foundation CEO Kevin Starr, “We always felt that funders have a unique platform to reach out to other funders [on behalf of their grantees]. We came to see that we had an obligation to do it.”
There are plenty of other practices that these profiles have in common — from engaging in rigorous due diligence to soliciting diverse perspectives to collaborating with other funders. But the five core disciplines above are bigger than “best practices.” They’re fundamental building blocks.
In the coming months, we’ll be elaborating on all five core disciplines, using CEP research, our own experiences, and the Leap Ambassadors’ funding profiles to flesh out the “how” behind each one. We want to help funders understand the hard skills, soft skills, and practices that peer funders are using to create more good in the world — and more meaning, purpose, and joy for themselves. We welcome your feedback on the profiles, ideas for other funders we should profile, and insights on how funders can better support the performance of their grantees. Please help us gin up as much positive peer pressure as we can!
Mario Morino is chairman of the Morino Institute, co-founder and founding chair of Venture Philanthropy Partners, and author of Leap of Reason. Lowell Weiss is president of Cascade Philanthropy Advisors and advisor to the Leap of Reason initiative. Follow Lowell on Twitter at @lowellweiss, Mario at @mmorino, and the Leap Ambassadors Community at @LeapAmbassadors.