Good grantmaking and good intentions

August 3, 2015 at 11:43 am Leave a comment

Heather-Peeler-headshotPhilanthropy Ohio is pleased to welcome Heather Peeler, vice president of member and partner engagement at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, as our guest blogger this week. You’ll have a chance to meet and learn from Heather at the Philanthropy Forward ’15 conference, where she’s leading two sessions to help increase your effectiveness as a grantmaker.

Now that summer is in full swing, I convinced my husband that we should have an informal backyard barbecue with some good friends. Given busy schedules, I wanted to host a casual gathering where everyone could relax and enjoy one another’s company.

plate of food at BBQHowever, if you had seen me the days before and after the event, you would have thought I was planning something for the Queen of England, not a casual party with friends. There was extensive menu planning (simple burgers and dogs wouldn’t do), a signature cocktail and an excursion to the home goods store for fancy patio lights and new planters. I was so stressed by my “casual” barbecue, that I’m not even sure if anyone actually had a fun and relaxing time. I certainly didn’t.

This is a perfect example of how our intentions and our behaviors are often out of alignment. It happens in our personal lives as well as our professional lives. And sadly it happens in grantmaking, too. As grantmakers, we have the best of intentions to collaborate with others, help our grantees become stronger and to learn from our failures and mistakes. Yet our behaviors and practices often get in the way of making those intentions a reality.

GEO-LogoGrantmakers for Effective Organizations has long studied the types of grantmaker practices that support grantee success. We know that nonprofit resilience is based on the ability to adapt to changing circumstances and that restricted funding hamstrings this flexibility. We know that evaluation provides a powerful way to garner insights into what’s working and why, but few grantmakers share evaluation results with grantees and others who can benefit. We know that collaborative efforts to pool resources and align strategies can yield faster progress, yet we struggle to give up control and let go of our unique ways of doing business. Finally, we know that we make better decisions when we engage with the community and deepen our understanding, but we struggle to prioritize the time that’s needed to build relationships.

If any of this sounds familiar, you are not alone. GEO’s recent field study of more than 600 foundations found that 93 percent of respondents think it is important or very important to provide support that will strengthen grantee organizations, yet 45 percent rarely or never support capacity-building activities. Eighty-one percent provide some level of general operating support, but most dedicate only 25 percent or less of their grantmaking budgets to it.

taking notes at meetingOver the years of working with grantmakers to help boost their and their grantees effectiveness, we’ve come to realize that knowledge of effective practice is not enough. Many smarter grantmaking practices are easier said than done. One doesn’t become a master collaborator or learning organization overnight. As part of the process, we should give careful consideration to our practices as well as our values. In particular, reflecting on current culture and values and how they align with practice can yield insights about why our organizations may not be making the progress we desire.

We have discovered many great ways that GEO members are shaping productive cultures through their actions, big and small. Here are a few that stuck with me:

  • The Cleveland Foundation nurtures a culture of learning by hosting “Fred Talks” (named after its founder) to better connect and learn with members of the community. The grantmaker convenes residents and community leaders for in-depth conversations in order to tap ideas about how the grantmaker can best pursue its mission. You can read more in Learning Together.
  • symphony concertIn GEO’s Smarter Grantmaking Playbook, we highlighted the work of Cuyahoga Arts and Culture and its commitment to strengthening the arts sector in Cleveland. It has made general operating support a key part of its strategy. By devoting a large proportion of its grantmaking to flexible support, the grantmaker has seen its grantees grow sustainably and have a larger impact in the communities they serve.
  • Jim Canales, one of GEO’s founders and the CEO of the Barr Foundation, talks about how important it is to mind the small things – like making sure program officers keep their phones tucked away when they are meeting with grantees or others in the community as a sign of respect.

Our desire for strong and effective grantees is within our reach. To achieve it, we must build our knowledge about and practice smarter grantmaking. And, we must give careful consideration to where our values, intentions and practice diverge.

I’m looking forward to my time in Ohio next month, hope to see you there!

Heather Peeler

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Entry filed under: Governance, Grantmaking, Management, Miscellaneous, Philanthropy Forward '15, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

Sound analysis + grounded assumptions + appropriate assessments yields high performance Constant learning creates lasting progress

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