Communication is key

Sparking conversations between funders and the nonprofits we support

In Short

Co-created processes that reflect both the experiential knowledge of nonprofit leaders and the due diligence needs of funders can more effectively drive the changes they seek to make in the world.

Earlier this year, the Hadassah Foundation was in the midst of preparing to launch a new category of grants. These “Spark Grants” would be new territory for us: investing in startup and emerging organizations. Our strategic plan included a commitment to seeking input from grantees and potential grantees, and we wanted to do so in a manner that was accessible and did not place undue burden on the grantseekers. 

We could have sought advice from other grantmakers, or hired a consultant. Instead, we reached out to the philanthropic field’s least-listened-to authorities: the professionals who invest countless hours applying for grant dollars in order to keep the doors of their nonprofits open.

It was a modest experiment, with seven nonprofit sector professionals weighing in, and it worked in large part because we received expert help from our partner, UpStart, a nonprofit that provides targeted support to social entrepreneurs of Jewish ventures. In the short term, the project affected just one category of grants totaling $60,000 – about 10% of our annual allocations – but the long-term lessons and potential were enormous. We believe we’ve hit upon a strategy that could be transformative if replicated on a larger scale. 

Here’s how the experiment worked. UpStart identified and convened nonprofit professionals or “venture leaders” in the field of Jewish gender equity. We asked them to review the application questions we’d devised and to share with us if they thought the questions were clear and potential ways they could be improved or made more accessible. While every suggestion might not get incorporated, we explained, each would receive serious consideration. Each venture leader who participated received an honorarium from the Hadassah Foundation, in the form of a payment to their organization, to compensate them for their time. 

UpStart played a critical role in the experiment, serving as a thought partner and a trusted intermediary between our foundation and venture leaders. After Aliza Mazor, chief field-building officer at UpStart, collected the feedback from the venture leaders, she facilitated a meeting that enabled our Board Chair Audrey Weiner, Spark Grants Committee Co-Chairs Joanna Golden and Tracey Spiegelman, and us to ask the venture leaders follow-up questions about their feedback; and they could ask us questions as well. Many of the leaders in UpStart’s network of social change ventures are personally impacted by the challenges that start-up and early-stage organizations experience in securing funding. Like us, those at Upstart believe that to drive social change, funders and nonprofits need to approach the traditional models and power dynamics of funder/grantee interactions with a critical eye. 

We learned a great deal from this exercise. On a micro level, for example, we received concrete suggestions about ways to better structure and word not just our application questions but our entire Request for Proposals, or RFP, to make it more user-friendly. We hadn’t requested feedback on the RFP, but the venture leaders volunteered it. 

On a macro level, we discovered that nonprofit leaders are eager to partner in creating better tools and processes for the field, even when they don’t benefit directly. Several of the leaders who participated led ventures that were ineligible to apply for our Spark Grant, yet they were nonetheless happy to contribute to making the process better for others.

What does all this mean for the future? At the Hadassah Foundation, we eventually hope to solicit feedback and advice from grantseekers on a whole range of issues – the application processes for our other grant categories, our reporting requirements, and ways beyond the financial that we can serve our grantees and the broader gender equity field. Because more than half of our grantees are based in Israel, we’d like to embark on a similar, but culturally adapted, process in Israel.

We believe that the lessons of our small experiment can go much further than our relatively small foundation and the ecosystem of gender-equity organizations we support. What if most, if not all, foundations made a conscious effort to listen to their grantees and potential grantees? What if there were a slew of opportunities for grantmakers and grantseekers to be in conversation, not only about the grantmaking process, but about one another’s overarching needs and challenges? 

We could have easily decided to launch our new grants without this process. After all, the Hadassah Foundation has been awarding grants to Israeli and U.S.-based feminist organizations for almost a quarter-century. We’ve allocated a total of $11 million to 110 nonprofits; and many of the groups that we invested in early, like Moving Traditions and Keshet, have gone on to make a huge impact, advancing gender equity and dramatically improving the lives of those who identify as women and girls. Based on our history, we could have told ourselves that we know all there is to know about grantmaking. 

The fact is, however, that we know only half (at most) of all there is to know, and that’s because there are two players in grantmaking: the funder and the funded. The perspective and accumulated wisdom of our grantees and potential grantees – the people who are out in the field, doing the hard work of bringing about social change – is just as if not more valuable than our own. 

We need more co-created processes that reflect the lived experiences of nonprofit leaders as well as the due diligence needs of funders. We need more opportunities to be on the same team instead of perceiving ourselves as being on opposing teams. Only when funders and grantseekers forge authentic relationships based on shared interests that go beyond the transactional can we drive social change together. 

Stephanie Blumenkranz and Julie Wiener are, respectively, the director and the assistant director of the Hadassah Foundation.