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PEAK Grantmaking

Small Steps, Big Issues, Strategy, and SWOT: Lessons from the PEAK Southwest Mini-Conference

Earlier this month, I joined grants management professionals from across the state of Texas for the PEAK Southwest Regional Chapter’s first-ever mini-conference, two days jam-packed with in-depth learning and actionable takeaways. As someone who considers herself a “do-er” through and through, it is always inspiring to learn from grants managers—some of the best do-ers in the philanthropic sector—who are grappling with the big issues facing philanthropy, and finding ways to operationalize solutions.

On the first day, we focused on the ways that foundations can best support grantees, and foster the greatest collective impact, by developing and using effective grantmaking practices. We heard from Jesse Simmons, Senior Evaluation Officer at St. David’s Foundation, who shared methods that funders can use to help grantees leverage data for their own learning and growth. We had an in-depth discussion on foundation effectiveness, centered around the book Giving Done Right by Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy. We visited Austin’s Center for Social Innovation, and saw first-hand how they have built a community that empowers nonprofit organizations to lead together, and how that community drives greater innovation.

On the second day, we discussed the complexities involved in building positive relationships with grantees and recognizing the inherent power differential, as well as the evolution of the grants management profession from a purely administrative role to an invaluable part of the strategic decision-making process. We heard about the trust-based partnership between Austin nonprofit Allies Against Slavery and the Dropbox Foundation, whose easy rapport demonstrated the relationship they’ve built, grounded in mutual respect and common goals. During a lively group discussion on the concept of Fitting In vs. Belonging, participants shared practical insights into methods that foundations can use to create a community of true “belonging” among grantmakers and grantees. We concluded with an analysis of the competencies required for today’s grants managers (based in PEAK’s Grants Management Professional Competency Model) and a discussion about ways to continue building expertise.

Among the many meaningful takeaways, these four stood out to me:

  1. Take some time to perform a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis for your foundation, and share your findings with a colleague to discuss ways you can be more effective.Frequently, but counter-intuitively, a foundation’s strengths can also be weaknesses. For instance, one foundation’s long-standing connection to the community represents strength in terms of relationships and reputation; that same quality, however, means they may struggle to develop new approaches and serve new populations. The opportunities in this example might include building on the foundation’s well-established role while incorporating new thinking. Grounding yourself in your foundation’s strengths (and values) can help make the case for needed changes. The questions we considered: What data do we need to make the case that change will result in increased impact? Are we living our values by using our current practices? If not, how could we?
  2. You can take small steps to build positive, trust-based relationships with your grantees.Take a look at your application process. Are there ways to streamline to use less of your grantees’ time? (Side note: Check out our Net Grant Calculator, a valuable new tool for measuring the costs incurred by your grantseekers.) What information do you provide on your website? Are you transparent about what you want to fund, and how? How are you ensuring that grantees feel comfortable telling you the good, the bad, and the ugly? (One funder holds regular check-in calls with their grantees, where they can discuss progress and challenges in a non-threatening conversation.)Want to take a bigger leap? Consider the risks you are willing to take to build better relationships and increase nonprofit impact. Consider making multi-year, operating-support grants to nonprofits you know and trust.
  3. Discussing the big issues, like driving equity and narrowing the philanthropy-nonprofit power gap, can lead to grantmaking innovation—and spur progress toward sector-wide change.One colleague revealed how their foundation thinks of grantees as partners, which led to a fascinating discussion about what a true partnership looks like among parties with an inherent power differential. The central question: Is equal partnership even achievable?Acknowledging the power gap up front leads to focused questions about how to help narrow it. Among them: How can you elicit candid feedback from your grantees concerning your relationship? How can you incorporate that feedback into your process? How can you be more transparent with grantees about your decision-making?
  4. Grants management professionals have much to offer foundations, but only if leadership is willing to listen.As we discussed the evolution of grants management as a profession—from administrative transactions to compliance and technology to partnerships and knowledge management—it was amazing to see how much grants management professionals do, and to better understand the full scope of knowledge and experience they possess.Grants managers are the creators of processes, keepers of data, and builders of relationships. As strategic decisions are being made about the impact a foundation wants to achieve over the next few years, and beyond, grants managers should be sought-after resources and thought partners.

I hope I’ve made the case for getting involved in one of PEAK Grantmaking’s 14 Regional Chapters, and joining your colleagues at learning and networking events this fall and throughout the year. Find out what’s ahead and register today: All grantmaking professionals are welcome.

Special thanks to St. David’s Foundation for hosting the PEAK Southwest Mini-Conference, and to PEAK Southwest Program Chair Hannah Rabalais, program officer at the Kleinert Foundation, for planning and leading the event.

Sara Sanders

Sara Sanders is director of membership at PEAK Grantmaking.