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PEAK Grantmaking

How the Barr Foundation Leads with Values to Narrow the Power Gap

Last week, we released a robust set of resources designed to help grantmakers operationalize the second of our five Principles for Peak Grantmaking: Narrow the Power GapIncluded in these resources are two case stories about grantmakers who are leading the way in narrowing the power gap with their grantees through process improvement, transparency, community engagement, and more. 
Today, we highlight the Barr Foundation, whose journey toward more balanced partnerships with their grantees has been driven by their core values of humility, modesty and curiosity. 

The Barr Foundation is one of the largest private foundations in New England with an endowment of $1.8 billion and a $90 million annual grantmaking budget that supports work in the areas of arts and creativity, climate, and education. Director of Grants Management Kerri Hurley says that their focus on narrowing the power gap is a reflection of the Foundation’s values“Modesty and humility come from seeing what our grantees are doing in the community, and that our role is a helping role: the impact that our grantees are making is what’s most important.” It is the understanding of that role that drives their efforts to ensure they are helping and supporting their grantees as much as possible – working with them and not against them. 

The Barr Foundation models three key behaviors that help narrow the power gap and build strong and trusting relationships with their grantees. 


1. The Foundation routinely collects and acts on community feedback to improve their grantmaking process.

Four times since 2003, the Barr Foundation has worked with the Center for Effective Philanthropy to conduct surveys and focus group wwith their grantees. Through these surveys, the Foundation has learned how grantees experience the Foundation – its people, its processes, it practices, and more. This information has helped them to improve all aspects of the grantee experience and has proved to be a critical component in building stronger  relationships and enhancing mutual respect and impact. 

2. The Foundation implements flexible practices to reduce the burden on their grantees.

After learning about the administrative burden that their grantmaking process put on their grantees, the Barr Foundation focused  on reducing the demands across the process. Hurley says, “We tried to make the process as simple as we possibly could. We accepted applications submitted to other funders. Even the reporting requirements were made more flexible … to let grantees just focus on the work they were doing.” 

The Foundation recognizes that in the nonprofit sector, time is capacity. By reducing the amount of time grantees spend applying for and reporting on grants, the Foundation is building grantees’ capacity to do what they exist to do – make an impact. They are also building trust at the same time.  

3. The Foundation steadfastly maintains clear, direct, and accessible communication with their community. 

The Foundation’s grants management team has made it their mission to ensure they are always responsive and transparent with grantees throughout the grantmaking process. From the very beginning of the process, the Foundation aims to be clear about who the best contact is, important dates and deadlines, and what to expect from the relationship. The team made a commitment that all programmatic inquiries will receive a response, with “cold inquiries” promised a reply within one month, and existing grantees receiving responses as soon as possible.  

It is here in these seemingly routine day-to-day interactions that better relationships are built. Hurley says, “Grantee relationship building, and continually defining just what that means: This is our work. Having clear, direct communications about why a report is requested, and what will be done with it, builds trust. When a grantee submits a report, they need to know someone here is reading it, that everything we ask from them is serving a purpose.” 

We commend the Barr Foundation for living their core values through a commitment to improving grant practices and grantee relationships, and thereby achieving its mission more equitably and effectively. 

How you can lead the way 

To help your organization understand how power shows up in grantmaking practiceexplore our new suite of Narrow the Power Gap resources.  

Start by downloading our Action Planner: Strategies for Narrowing the Power Gap.Then, RSVP for our March 20 webinar, where we’ll explore what it means to Narrow the Power Gap and how PEAK Grantmaking can help you do it 

PEAK Grantmaking members have access to two new case stories of organizations who are doing this work well; and, exclusive to our Organization Members, we’ve developed five how-to guides providing roadmaps to put this principle into practice. (Not a member? Join us!) 

Many of our colleagues in philanthropyserving organizations across the country have demonstrated exceptional thought leadership around power in the philanthropic sector. We encourage you to engage with this work by visiting our Sector Resources page.