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PEAK Grantmaking

Centered: the Bainum Family Foundation’s values journey

Tie Practices to Values: It’s the first of five guiding principles in our Principles for Peak Grantmaking. As part of our release of a new suite of resources to support you in adapting the Principles in your work, we’ve published two case stories of members who are leading the way in successfully tying organizational values to grantmaking practices through shared governance and participatory grantmaking.

This week, we highlight the Bainum Family Foundation, whose journey toward establishing explicit values and aligning grant practices has been equally successful.

Asking the Question, Speaking the Truth, Doing the Work

Like many family foundations, the Bainum Family Foundation has always been heavily influenced by its founder’s values and life story. Late entrepreneur and philanthropist Stewart Bainum created the foundation in 1968 to provide scholarships and other educational opportunities for children in Washington, D.C. Though the foundation’s strategies and initiatives have evolved over the years, they keep Mr. Bainum’s life experience and values like persistence, integrity, growth and learning, as central to their work.

Also, like many family foundations, Bainum spent much of its history believing that its goals and implicit values were evident to everyone inside and outside of the organization.

In 2008, Mr. Bainum’s daughter Barbara transitioned into the role of board chair, CEO, and president. She took the opportunity to pause and ask the most important question a foundation can ask itself: Do we really know what our values are and how they are showing up in our work? 

The answer was not entirely.

So began a long, deeply intentional, inclusive and ongoing effort to change that answer. Under Ms. Bainum’s guidance and with her encouragement, the Bainum Family Foundation did three key things worth emulating.

1. The Foundation engaged individuals at every level of the organization in turning their implicit values into an agreed-upon explicit values statement.

Through a series of focus groups and other methods, Ms. Bainum worked with Bainum family members, board members and senior staff members to turn Mr. Bainum’s legacy, values and personal characteristics into a set of explicitly stated values.

2. The Foundation worked deliberately to define what those values meant in practice to arrive at a collective understanding.

Wisely, the Foundation recognized that it could not stop at simply producing a written list of values. As Senior Director of Talent and Organizational Development Rebecca Cisek puts it: “We knew that our values would only become important to the work, internally and externally, if we were holding people accountable for following them.”

At a retreat, the entire Bainum staff engaged in the hard work of digging into each value and arrived at a shared understanding of what each value meant in practice.

3. The Foundation assigned specific behaviors to each value to ensure consistent action.

Finally, Bainum did a rather brilliant thing – they appointed a Core Values Working Group across the organization to identify and recommend specific behaviors and actions associated with each value. This left no doubt or question in anyone’s mind about what it meant to behave with the value of “Integrity” in their work.

“We didn’t know how to embody these values because we hadn’t clearly defined them in practice … Some folks might think they are being highly collaborative while others could easily disagree. Because they have a different definition of ‘collaboration’ …”   
– Rebecca Cisek 

The result today is a statement of values that have been collectively defined by the entire organization and are accompanied by a set of behaviors representative of each value. The Foundation has now embarked on the final step in the journey: reviewing their grant process and practices to ensure they align with what they say they want to do and want to be.

It all started with the simple question – Do we know what our values are and are they showing up in the work that we do? Often finding the courage to ask the question is the hardest part.

How you can lead the way

To learn how you can help your organization ask the hard questions and embrace these recommendations for your organization, explore our new suite of Tie Practices to Values resources.

There, you can download our Action Planner: Strategies for Aligning Practices and Values.  and explore other open resources, including articles and a roundup of sector insights.

Watch the On-demand Webinar: Tying Grantmaking Practices to Values, where we explore what it means to Tie Practices to Values and how PEAK Grantmaking can help you make the case to fully adapt this Principle in your grantmaking practices.

Then, we invite PEAK Grantmaking members to read two new case stories of organizations who are doing this work well; and our Organization Members to download three how-to guides providing roadmaps to put this principle into practice––in your strategic planning, in improving alignment, and in building coalitions for change. (Not a member? Join us!)

Elly Davis

Elly Davis is Programs and Knowledge Manager at PEAK Grantmaking.