Raising the Bar: Examining the Increased Value in Foundation Grantee Partnerships Part III: Leadership and Strategic Planning

by Benjamin Greene

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. For a more detailed introduction to this series, please see my first and second posts.

In times of uncertainty clear, pro-active and strategic organizational leadership and planning can ensure a foundation’s confidence in and help further its partnership with a grantee. In some regards, demonstrating a clear process of leadership and decision making can be nearly as important as the actual decisions that are being made. A process by which an organization successfully utilizes board oversight and expertise, as well as properly engages key stake holders (including foundations) is not only indicative of good governance, but also reflects a heightened sense of responsibility and thoughtful management.

Foundations recognize that an organization’s leadership may not yet have all of the necessary answers for negotiating this climate, but it is essential for their leadership to demonstrate that they are asking the appropriate questions and are not shying away from difficult decision making. As detailed in The Innovation Ecosystem report, by December of last year approximately 60% of new Jewish organizations had already taken actions in response to the economy. Recently, The Fundermentalist has also been examining the specific steps that a variety of organizations have taken.

Organizational leadership should be reflective of the fundamental and long-term shifts that are occurring in the Jewish community. Decisions should reveal a deep consideration of whether the programs and services they are providing are still essentially inline with the needs of their constituents and are truly the best way to further the organization’s goals as a whole. Further, shared resources make for a shared future, and this is a moment where those who have helpful skills, resources or knowledge, which can be easily distributed, should be stepping forward, without fear of loosing a particular competitive edge.

Although many organizations may still be uncertain of their fundraising capacity for the coming year, there is a stark difference between developing strategic contingency plans, which take effect in response to certain financial metrics, and simply putting off difficult decisions until absolutely necessary. As the Chronicle of Philanthropy reported, organizations that have put such plans in place are managing the recession better than those that have not yet begun such processes. Further, if the last 6 months were about how to “survive” the recession, the current focus of leadership and planning needs to be about how to “thrive” in it. Organizations must demonstrate they are not just struggling to salvage the status quo, but are utilizing the changing landscape to further their mission.

The evaluation and planning process can present an excellent (albeit challenging) opportunity to advance foundation partnerships. Foundations often see great value in being involved in conversations about the future direction of their grantees, particularly when they feel their distinct insight can be a helpful resource to the organization. Therefore these discussions should be utilized as a significant opportunity, and not simply as an update or courtesy call.

Given that a foundation’s professionals may be involved in similar conversations with several other grantees, discussions should be well prepared and structured in a manner that provides the greatest benefit to both the organization and foundation. Jen Kraus, Program Associate for the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, explained that before conversations are initiated with a foundation “it is extremely helpful if an organization is able to map out and clearly articulate both its priorities and its overall strengths and weaknesses.” This allows foundations to quickly focus in on the areas, which they can provide the greatest insight and support. She further stated that because “foundations frequently fund multiple organizations in a particular area they often have a bird’s eye view of field wide trends” which can be very informative for a grantee’s strategic planning or evaluation process.

In developing these conversations organizations might want to consider the following questions:

  • Is there a particular challenge or issue, which this foundation’s experience and expertise could be most helpful in addressing?
  • Subsequently, what information/background would a foundation need to be able to make an informed assessment about this challenge or issue?
  • As an organization, have you truly put “everything on the table” and if not are you prepared to demonstrate the value of the organizational “red lines” that have been established?
  • What new opportunities has this economic climate created that might be of shared value to both your organization and the foundation?
  • How might key organizational decisions that are being considered inhibit or advance the organization’s ability to be strategically aligned with mission and vision of the foundation?
  • What is the organizational process for incorporating the feedback or advice received by a foundation (or other stake holders) into the organization’s strategic planning?

Again, 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.