PF Whiteboard

Big Bang

Last week I was in Fort Colins in Colorado, at the annual Big Bang gathering. Thankfully, the weather was delightful so my CA-light wardrobe was not tested for CO-winter readiness—it would have failed…

Big Bang Philanthropy is a collaborative group of like-minded funders who all give at least $1M annually to global poverty solutions, more particularly to “impact driven” organisations. The definition of “impact driven” that we’ve settled on, for now*, is: 1) a clear process around impact, 2) notions for scale, 3) a viable delivery model, 4) a realistic and efficient cost per outcome. Obviously there’s a lot of subjectivity within those 4 aspects.

We make decisions independent of each other, so we all fund some of the orgs classed as Big Bang orgs, and all fund many that aren’t. Sometimes we agree on what the above 4 aspects look like in real life, and sometimes we don’t. But we all share pipeline, insights, and, where we can, reporting (so one org funded by a number of us don’t have to produce just as many reports). Those classed as Big Bang orgs are funded at a certain level by at least 3 of the Big Bang funders who all agree that they meet the above 4 aspects of “impact driven”.

We’re still figuring out exactly how the Big Bang will operate and grow, but it’s a great group to learn from, to share ideas of what works and what doesn’t, and to push each other to be better at the business of philanthropy. The main reason we love Big Bang Philanthropy is because of that last point: we believe it’s a way to focus on becoming a more grantee-centric funding organisation, and for us to draw attention to simple but smart practices of philanthropy like unrestricted funding and multi-year commitments. Music to our ears!

*as anyone who has been involved with collaboratives can attest, coming to agreed upon definitions is a sticky, messy process.

Grant Making By Conversation?

In the few months I’ve been at Peery, I’ve been meeting with community leaders throughout East Palo Alto. Particularly, I have learned a lot from the hard-working principals of Ravenswood City School District (RCSD). Given my own experience as a site administrator in Ravenswood, coupled with my recent conversations, I know that each of them wishes they could clone themselves – there’s just not enough of them to go around. They are needed everywhere, all the time.  Principals rely on their own heroes – masterful, committed teachers that give, and give, and give.
Dave and I were recently brainstorming ways to support principals and their heroes in the day-to-day work they give so much to. Schools sites already have established Site Leadership Teams (SLTs), where principals and teacher leaders come together to problem-solve and act upon the schools’ goals and needs. We want to support an existing structure. We hope to empower the team to act by giving them access to funds that already align with the work in which they are tasked.
Knowing how precious their time is, and how resources are either limited or restricted, we wanted to create a process that was simple with a quick turnaround. How can we support every leadership team without asking for too much of their time?  How can the grant making process be as painless as possible, and support the people that are doing such great work at the schools?
After talking through several ideas with Dave, we decided to tackle this question: Can we create a process of grant making through conversation? Within a week, I crafted an RFP and sent it out to all Ravenswood principals. The process essentially entails a 15-minute conversation with the SLT, no PowerPoint, no handouts. We’re not sure how it will be received, but are looking for feedback. Does the process seem easier than it actually is? Is the process rigorous enough?

Grantees as Customers: Four ways funders can serve and empower grantees

(Originally published on the Stanford Social Innovation Review Blog)

At the Peery Foundation, we think of grantees as our customers and act accordingly. We’re not investing enough resources on our own to solve social issues at a systemic level, so we try to focus on our core function: to invest in social entrepreneurs and leading organizations. This means we leave the big, hairy problem-solving to grantees and focus on how to create a funding environment that better enables their success. We don’t do any of the following perfectly, but here are some of the ideals we try to live by:

We use empathy to design our funding approach.

We’ve spent the past six or seven years designing a grantee-centered approach to funding. This has required that we impose on ourselves the same expectations we have of prospective grantees. For example, we expect that organizations design their interventions based on insights from beneficiaries and their communities. We, in turn, should be designing our funding strategies with input from social entrepreneurs.

I’ve had countless interviews with nonprofit leaders and staff about what is working and what is not with their funders. For example, Jane Leu, founder of Upwardly Global (one of our grantees), articulated for me how multi-year grants enable organizations to grow much more quickly. These conversations have directly informed an approach focused on trust, responsiveness, and long-term, unrestricted support—and we are seeing results. We recently made a multi-year grant to help one organization hire a program director to scale up. This commitment provided a local school district with the confidence to devote significant district resources, more than doubling the reach of the program. Predictable funding gives entrepreneurs the confidence to make important hires now and take risks that can propel their work forward. And while that may seem obvious, it’s not always so for donors who haven’t been in the fundraising chair.

We communicate with intention.

People often ask how we develop open lines of communication with our grantees. It starts with simply having the conversation at the outset about what kind of funding relationship you intend to have. Letting them know they can share the good, bad, and the ugly—without consequence—and letting them know they should decline things we offer if they don’t need them. “If we offer to send you to a conference and it’s not a priority, please tell us. You won’t hurt our feelings!” 

Intentional communication is important to shifting the power dynamic. Small actions and words communicate how we see our respective roles, and who holds the power. For example, when we meet with our grantees, where does this happen—at our office or theirs? When we conduct due-diligence, who spends more time on the process—us or them? We make a point of saving grantees’ time by meeting at their offices, and asking only for documents they already have for diligence and reporting. We are in service to these incredible people who are impacting our world. We are powerless to fulfill our mission without them.

We value honest feedback.

We once asked a new grantee to articulate its milestones for the next 12 months, and in an effort to keep it simple and make the team’s life easier, we requested that they submit just one page. When they sent the one-pager, they told me, “Here it is, but making it three pages long would’ve actually been easier!” I was glad they spoke up—though our intentions were right on, the request should have been about communicating the organization’s milestones in the easiest way possible.

Honest and regular feedback from grantees is critical, but it can be hard to get. Tools such as the Grantee Perception Report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy are great and go very deep, but we need more safe, simple, and accessible ways for grantees to rate and critique their funders.

It recently occurred to my colleague Jessamyn Lau that using a feedback system similar to Uber taxi service—where both the driver and passenger rate each other, establishing a level playing field of respect—could be a way to solicit feedback on the performance of our foundation’s and staff’s performance. Right now we are developing a simple feedback tool that will allow anyone who interacts with us to immediately and anonymously rate their experience, with results given to us at the end of a year.

We encourage grantees to make the rules.

In the world of grantmaking, the funders typically make all the rules. But what if, for example, nonprofit websites had a section listing the kinds of funding they do and do not accept? “We don’t accept restricted funding, as it can hamper our ability to innovate and achieve our mission.” Or what about reporting? “We distribute a quarterly report to all of our investors, which includes all of our performance metrics and updates.”

We are part of a funder collaborative called Big Bang Philanthropy, where our shared grantees issue the same quarterly reports to nearly all of us. We’ve encouraged other organizations to do the same. Not all funders will accept this style of reporting, but, for those who will, it allows grantees to spend less time on reporting and more time running their programs. As grantees streamline their accountability to funders, they will ultimately have a cohort of committed supporters who are bought into the vision the grantee is setting, rather than their own.

In the spirit of learning from those we serve, I’ll close with the words of Rob Gitin of At The Crossroads (ATC), which helps homeless youth move forward in their lives via unconditional and long-term relationships. Many agencies serving the homeless have so many rules that clients feel they have to “game the system” to get help; ATC focuses on building relationships of trust to facilitate the best support for the youth it supports. “They shouldn’t have to lie to be better-served by us,” Rob told me. “Without a foundation of honesty you can’t serve them.”

Yelp for Foundations

The ‘Yelp’ for non-profits, GreatNonprofits, provides an opportunity for people to review non-profit organisations (full disclosure: the PF has provided funding for GreatNonprofits in the past). On anyone can share their experiences and interactions with an organisation -highlighting those who provide great services and occasionally those that don’t do such a great job. Greatnonprofits’ mission is to inspire and inform donors and volunteers, gather stories that demonstrate the work of great non-profits, and promote excellence through transparency and feedback.

What if there were a A mechanism for grantees to review their experiences and interactions with a foundation. Somewhere to inform grant seekers of what kind of interaction they can expect. A repository for great stories of grantee-funder partnership. And somewhere to promote excellence through transparency and feedback. This is not a new idea, but one that has not come to fruition yet.

As people have discussed the potential of this I’ve heard concern about whether non-profits would actually participate or give truly frank feedback as they would never want to damage a funding relationship, or their reputation with other funders -an understandable and real concern. But what if the feedback could range in its level of detail? At the very least a non-profit could give an overall rating out of 5 stars for a foundation, then if they wanted to they could give ratings out of 5 for the foundation on various general categories, and then finally have the option to go in to detail by writing an actual review -all anonymously. The general categories could be things that cut across types and sizes of foundations, like ‘clarity’, or ‘respect’.

What other categories would be telling, yet general enough to apply to all funding interactions? Comment or email me (jessamynATpeeryfoundationDOTorg) with your suggestions. We’ll pass them on should this idea get traction any time soon!

Observations on Development

The difference between reading a business plan/strategic plan and talking through a plan with a founder is massive. Seeing in person the passion, determination, confidence, thought, sincerity, competence, awareness, etc, etc, is way beyond the communication ability of a slide deck.

There are also limitations on how much time an entrepreneur or leader can spend meeting funders and other supporters. Which is why it’s impossible to under-communicate how important a development hire is. Great development people don’t feel like development people. They communicate similar passion, determination, confidence, thought, sincerity, competence, awareness, etc, etc, to their org’s founders.

They can answer questions about org culture, innovation, in the field progress, current challenges, and most other things we’d ask a founder. And they never schmooze, ego-boost, or leave you feeling hit-up. It’s relationship building at its best.

How Should We Say No?

Last night I received an angry and frustrated reply to an email I had sent earlier in the evening. The entrepreneur it was from was highly critical of the decision of the PF to not fund his organisation, and the process used to come to the decision and communicate it.

Obviously the news was not what the entrepreneur wanted to hear. Though his email seemed to indicate that his reaction was also influenced by other situations and factors outside the PF’s interaction with him, a strong reaction like this is cause to look very carefully at what we do and how we do it.

The least fun part of my job is to let people know that the PF can’t fund them. Right now, I do this, on average, at least twice a week. Particularly when we’ve met the entrepreneur in person and begun some level of due-diligence it takes me a while to write those emails - usually about 30 minutes. Last night’s was no different as I tried to figure out the right level of clarity and explanation. I’m fairly confident that my response was candid, respectful and timely given the situation.

I’ve been doing this for just over 18 months - not long at all - and I’ve definitely gotten a few things wrong along the way, but these are the key points I’ve picked up so far:

1) Timely
Being timely with a response is fair and respectful. Sometimes you just *know* when you first visit a website that we aren’t going to be a fit. Other times you *know* half way through the due diligence process that you’ve found a deal-breaker. But there’s a definite point where you know you have to say no. Though often it would be easier to leave the no until another day, generally as soon as you’re sure is when it’s good to say so.

2) Clear
Clarity prevents misunderstanding, wasted time/energy, and continued time investment. Being absolutely clear that it’s a ‘no’ might seem harsh at first, yet if it prevents organisations using time and resources to continue pursuing funding that isn’t possible then that’s got to be better for everyone. This is something I’m still figuring out and attempting to determine what clarity really looks like in individual cases…

3) Respectful
I think people appreciate knowing that even though a funder may not be a good fit, they recognise and respect the achievements or value of the work the organisation is undertaking. Both of the above points add to showing the respect due to entrepreneurs we meet. And on top of that, infusing the due-diligence process itself with a respect for the time and capacity of the entrepreneur. For example, though each foundation/funder has a unique focus and criteria, the majority of things we look for are the same or very similar, so in most cases there is no need to request specifically created documents. Requesting documents as they have already been created either for the organisation’s own use, or for another funder (that they are willing to share) and then following up with more specific questions or a phone call to fill the gaps.

I think there’s a another key point around ‘usefulness’. Some of the funders we most respect leave all entrepreneurs better than they found them because of the diligence process and feedback. Yet, quite honestly, there are times when it is not constructive to go in to or list the entire reasoning behind why we’re not a fit for an organisation. So I’m still working on that one and how it best works.

So what do you think? Am I on the right lines? What other points are key to us interacting and communicating respectfully with entrepreneurs we talk with and conduct due-diligence on? We’d love your perspective from whatever angle of the situation you look at it.

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