Philanthropy leaders are at their most strategic and are empowered to build capacity when they have a strong awareness of themselves, their partners, and the field. I'll explain:
Awareness is pretty much the name of our game at the Foundation Center. The organization collects, analyzes, and distributes data about philanthropy, providing various audiences – from foundations to budding nonprofits to established grants managers – a firm understanding of what’s going on in the social sector.Take, for example, Foundation Center’s Foundation Maps. It’s kind of like Foundation Center’s version of Google Maps, with social sector-relevant overlays and filters.
Recently, my sister-in-law asked me if I knew about environmental funders in the Bay Area. Her friend is moving to Oakland and wants to work with an organization that combats climate change. I’ve lived and fundraised in the Bay Area for almost a decade, but I was drawing a blank, so I used Foundation Maps and quickly came back to my sister-in-law with a long list of environmentally engaged local grantees and funders.
Maybe her friend will gravitate towards a foundation on the list, or maybe, after discovering which organizations those funders support, she’ll want to apply to a nonprofit. By the time she gets here, she’ll have a greater awareness of this subsection of Bay Area philanthropy and can wow her interviewers with her knowledge of the field. More importantly, though, once she lands a job she can use this knowledge to fuel her projects, creating further connections in the field.
Another example of the importance of awareness in philanthropy comes from Jamaica Maxwell, an organizational effectiveness program officer at the Packard Foundation. During a recent visit to the Foundation Center, she spoke to us about the power dynamics of grantmaking. She’s keenly aware of the power she has as a grantmaker, holding the proverbial purse strings of potential grantees. Often, she told us, grantees will hang on to her words, taking her most casual suggestions as orders.
Once, she recommended a book to a grantee; by the following Friday, he had bought the book and was going to read it and report back to her on the most noteworthy chapters. Maxwell wasn’t asking for a book report – she was just making an off-hand recommendation. But in the grantee-grantmaker relationship, the foundation is king … at least, that’s how it has been.
But the folks at Packard are working hard to rectify this power imbalance and create a level playing field for foundations and their beneficiaries. How? It’s all about awareness. Packard requires all program officers to cultivate a deeper understanding of the profound power they have when they’re working with grantees. Foundation leadership asks program officers to turn the tables. Why not let the grantees talk?
Maxwell said that, for her, learning to listen to her grantees was integral to her work at Packard, and not just during formal, scheduled meetings and site visits. She said that some of the best grantee–foundation relationship building happens outside the office. She suggested program officers break down power structures by joining grantees on their lunch breaks and at their staff get-togethers (yes, even happy hours!).
Listening doesn’t just help grantmakers tweak their budgets or understand evaluation results better; it improves the whole grant process. By establishing trust with grantees, grantmakers can push their beneficiaries to get more out of their grants. And grantees can feel more comfortable providing much-needed feedback to their funders. Promoting awareness – of the grantee-grantmaker dynamic and of the grantee’s needs – can increase impact sector-wide.
Which brings up an important question: What role do you think awareness plays in the philanthropy sector? For us, it’s all about smarter grantmaking and increased accountability.
This post first appeared on the GrantCraft website. GrantCraft is a service of the Foundation Center. For more information about grantmaker effectiveness, see Foundation Center’s GrantCraft guide, Supporting Grantee Capacity: Strengthening Effectiveness Together.
Eliza Smith is the special projects associate at Glasspockets, at the Foundation Center, San Francisco.