Raising the Bar: Examining the Increased Value in Foundation Grantee Partnerships, Part I

A new series on foundation-grantee partnerships by Benjamin Greene

This past year the philanthropic world has been driven by two major determinants: uncertainty and evaluation. The impact of the clear reduction in financial resources has only been magnified by the volatility of both the short and long-term financial markets. As reported by the Fundermentalist the awareness of these challenges and their potential consequences was on full display at this year’s annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network. For all foundations, whether or not they have reduced their giving levels, there is a heightened sense of responsibility, drawn from the understanding that as financial resources become more precious, they must be utilized in the most effective manner possible. Therefore in these complex times many philanthropies have sought to carefully examine their investments in more in-depth and strategic manners. That is not to say that in previous, more affluent, years funding decisions were made lightly, but that in times of limited resources and uncertainty, the margins for what may qualify for funding become far more narrowly defined.

In addition to determining which organizations and projects are truly inline with a foundation’s core mission and values, the expectations which foundations are seeking of their grantees have also been heightened. This raising of principles, however is not just about increased due diligence. Rather, aware that they are now working with a smaller pool of grantees, foundations have sought to develop stronger partnerships in order to help best advance the shared goals of the organizations they are working with.

For several foundations trying to do more with less, is not just about how they are choosing to allocate their grant funding, but also how they are managing their internal resources. It should be noted, as detailed in a recent New York Times article, that in response to declined assets many foundations have also begun to cut staff positions. Implementing heightened grant standards and fostering deeper grantee relationships, requires a significant investment of, what for many foundations may be precious and limited, staff time and capital.

In this frame, many of the enhanced standards foundations are seeking to implement are not only meant to provide clearer information and better oversight, but also to strengthen the overall work and well-being of the organizations they are funding. Further, these robust expectations also speak to a heightened environment of shared responsibility, where foundations and their grantees must both step up to the challenge of the current financial situation.

In many partnerships this process has already happened organically, with foundations and grantees communicating more frequently and openly about the anxieties and opportunities that they are encountering as a result of the financial situation. Meetings that were once mainly about funding have expanded to include strategic discussions about determining organizational priorities and brainstorming ways to collaborate with other entities. Further, as displayed by the recent Lean Years: Strategies for Survival forums, there has been increased discourse between foundations and grantees about how the constricting of funding is affecting the Jewish community as a whole, and what might be done on a larger scale to address the problems it is creating.

As we cross the halfway point of 2009, it is my hope that this series will provide insight and help for those seeking to establish or improve their relationships with philanthropic foundations, as well as for foundations seeking to advance the relationships they have with their grantees.

In specific this blog series will seek to examine, through individual posts, the importance and various aspects of three key features of foundation grantee partnerships: Transparency, Leadership and Strategic Planning, and Grantee Collaboration and Foundation Alignment.

I greatly welcome your comments, feedback or questions throughout the series and will seek to address them in subsequent posts.

Benjamin Greene is the Program Associate at The Samuel Bronfman Foundation where he collaborates on a variety of national initiatives and research projects. Benjamin has a master’s in Jewish Education and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.