“Off the Menu”

Thanks to the EPIP-NY chapter and TCC Group for co-hosting a workshop I facilitated yesterday, “Off the Menu: Choosing the Right Non-Grantmaking Roles.” The Mertz-Gilmore Foundation were fabulous hosts.

The focus of the workshop was to help foundation program staff identify non-grantmaking roles that are a good fit for them and their foundation. Such roles include research, advocacy, communications, convening, field building, and capacity building, among others. As the workshop description put it:

As a program staffer at a foundation, it can seem like there is an endless menu of conferences, convenings, site visits, affinity groups, blogs, and publications – not to mention all of the invitations from your grantees. It’s easy to say yes when you’re excited about learning and contributing to the field.  But you also have all the other work you’re expected to do, so how do you determine what’s really important—for your grantees, your program strategy, your foundation’s mission, and your own personal development?  And how do you navigate a supervisor or organizational culture that pushes you to get out there as much as possible—or one that would prefer you to stay chained to your desk?

While you have criteria for making grants, there are few rules when it comes to choosing non-grantmaking activities. How do you prioritize and make the case for those activities that are critical to your job, your foundation, and your personal development? How do you navigate generational differences within your organization to explain what kinds of non-grantmaking roles are worthwhile?

A few things struck me about the discussion at the workshop itself:

  • The range of actors involved in non-grantmaking roles is very broad. While the session was targeted to grantmakers, the diversity of the audience, which included nonprofit leaders and consultants made for lively discussion about what kinds of non-grantmaking activities are genuinely useful. If grantmakers get more into strategic communications, how aware are they of their audiences and what kind of language and terminology resonate with those audiences?
  • Non-grantmaking roles put funders on more of an equal footing with grantees. Without the grant relationship directly mediating the connection, nonprofits and funders have the potential to engage in a more open way. This is far from automatic, however! It requires some intentional discussions, and some recognition among funders that they’re learners in this space.
  • It’s important to balance your ambitions for non-grantmaking roles with the resources at your disposal. One area that several participants gravitated to was making the information funders receive from grantees and their own research more broadly available to the field. But what is the quality of that data? It may sound good to take a more data-driven approach to decision-making, but how reliable and accessible are the data with which you’re working? That doesn’t mean such efforts aren’t worth pursuing, but a measure of realism is needed.
  • There’s a desire for more of this discussion. The internal capacity of foundations is something for which we don’t have a lot of good frameworks or explicit ways of talking about, so it’s easy to make decisions in an ad hoc fashion. By naming the types of capacity that foundations, in particular their program staff, need to play their roles effectively, and how those capacities connect to mission achievement, we can shed light on this underappreciated area.

In upcoming posts, I’ll have more to say about the content of the workshop, in particular the idea that non-grantmaking roles can be understood in terms of how foundations Influence, Include, Inform, and Invest. For now, thanks again to those who participated!

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