Grantee-Centric: A Different Kind of Philanthropy

What if foundations mostly gave unrestricted funding instead of dictating how grantees could spend their grants? What if foundations kept supporting grantees who performed instead of ending funding because the “grant cycle” had ended? What if foundations ditched the whole system of soliciting grant proposals and focused on proactively searching for great grantees? 

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Cash Flow Wizardry for Small and Growing Nonprofits

If you are the Executive Director/CEO of a nonprofit, guaranteed this is a busy time of year. Likely you are deep in the throes of finishing your 2015 budget, and getting your board to approve it before everyone moves into full holiday mode. It is also a happy time of year because holiday gifts are coming in, as well as good news on grant application processes started much earlier...

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A Conversation With Vittana's Former COO

The Peery Foundation has funded Vittana since 2008 with grants totaling over $600,000, with our last grant going out to Vittana after their announcement was made to close Vittana's doors. Kate, and I sat down for a reflective virtual chat about what we could both learn from Vittana's story given the grantee-grantor relationship between Vittana and the Peery Foundation.

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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”...

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What is a Funder’s Role in Collective Impact?

Last week, I was lucky to attend FSG’s and the Aspen’s Institute’s Collective Impact Forum conference in San Francisco. I learned achieving large-scale change through collective impact has five major components. 1) Common Agenda 2) Shared Measurement 3) Mutually Reinforcing Activities 4) Continuous Communication 5) Backbone Support. In one of the whole group sessions...

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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...

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Turning the tables (just a little)

We’re pulling the trigger on creating an app/platform that will enable us to get rolling feedback and ratings on our performance, from our grantees. Advocate Creative will be building us a platform that is simple to use, quick to complete and 100% anonymous. Our hope is once we have it in place our grantees (and others) can rate us on 3 characteristics on a rolling basis—as often as they...

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The difference between equality and equity

The terms equality and equity, in the context of education and social issues, are used interchangeably often. But there may be a way to think about the terms differently, perhaps to better guide the process of grant making. Equality stems from the word equal, as in the same. You cut the pie equally, so that everyone gets the same amount. Equity starts with the premise...

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

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...

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Salesforce Update

At the end of last year we published a blog post declaring our plans to do a second major re-configuration of our Salesforce platform.  8 months later we are proud to declare that the project is done and Salesforce is running smoothly (or at least, as smoothly as one could expect it to).  I thought I would write a little update for those of you who are also wrestling with the benevolent beast that is Salesforce...

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Oprah (with a beard) for the Social Sector

By Jessamyn Lau

A few months back I fed myself to the lions. I sat opposite the tenacious Jonathan Lewis, as he put me in the iOnPoverty hot seat, and fired questions at me under the glare of studio lights and flash of cameras. It turned out to be an enjoyable opportunity to think about and begin to articulate what had prepared me for my current role at the PF, things I’m learning about philanthropy, and my developing ideas about social entrepreneurship/social innovation.

I’d highly recommend checking out the other interviewee videos. Jonathan is building a resource full of diverse perspectives, experience and advice. For budding changemakers iOnPoverty is a platform for social innovation mentorship soundbites. There are some sage pieces of wisdom -actionable too- from Anne Marie Burgoyne from Draper Richards Kaplan, Akaya Windwood from the Rockwood Leadership Institute and many others. And it’s free for all viewers now! Enjoy!

Yelp for Foundations

By Jessamyn Lau

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!

Philanthropy Misbehaving

By Jessamyn Lau

This week I heard a couple of fund raising horror stories. I was appalled by the behaviour of my fellow funding professionals. They are outliers, for sure, but it saddened me to hear of those few who sometimes turn talking to funders in to a dreadful or demoralising event.

Please, if you thrive on the inherent power imbalance in philanthropy, or don’t have respect for the people at the table with you, find another profession or industry. After 3 years in philanthropy I’m not yet an expert but feel protective of the approach to philanthropy many influential funders have worked hard to create. Funders like Philanthropic Ventures FoundationMulagoDraper Richards Kaplan and many others around the world. Those who constantly try to improve the way they walk the line of respectful candour, are conscious of the time they ask for from grant seekers, and simply trust their grantees.

It was put really well by Gayle Williams, ED of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, who I’ve never met but is quoted in a great Council on Foundations publication, ‘Wit and Wisdom’:

“Know that the culture of philanthropy is a culture of privilege and try to maintain a sense of humility within that place of power and privilege. People in the field can’t pretend that it doesn’t exist. We can either behave in privileged ways, or we can work to maintain a deep sense of who we are and act with integrity and authenticity. There’s no easy way to deal with this tension, but we have to struggle with it. I’d worry if we didn’t struggle with the privilege that surrounds us.”

10 Nuggets of Wisdom for SE's (and the rest of us)

By Jessamyn Lau

From the Draper Richards Kaplan retreat, last week:

- Fire faster: Personnel problems tend to age more like milk than wine. - Exercise: This is non-negotiable if you are in this for the long run. - Decisions don’t have to take a long time if you’ve got the right people making them. - People do not describe themselves as ‘in poverty’. - Appreciate your critics: Grit makes polish. - The key to confidence is humility. - Reject all excuses: Trying really hard does not equal results. Do not confine your staff to mediocrity. - Your standard is exactly what you want to say but do nothing about. - Only the schizophrenic survive: The militantly optimistic, and constantly petrified. - You can’t do it alone: Isolation is one of your biggest dangers.

Observations on Development

By Jessamyn Lau

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.

If at first you don't succeed...

By Jessamyn Lau

We shut down our web form last month. This was the page on our website where anyone could go to briefly tell us about their people, idea and impact. When we set it up it seemed like a great idea, where we felt like we could be entirely approachable, not ask for detailed proposals, and able to learn about new organisations that we would be a good funding fit for.

During the past year we’ve had about 100 organisations go to the page to tell us about their work. We’ve learned about many interesting and important models. However, we found we weren’t a good fit for any of them. We were spending lots of short periods of time figuring that out and then responding to people. They added up to a significant amount of time each week. And, even though we didn’t ask for much information from each org, each org still invested time in telling us their stories -with no significant results for them or us. It didn’t work.

As we talked about this we realised this time would be better spent going out and finding orgs that we do fit with, through channels that we *know* yield results. This method feels better too. We love technology and the way it connects people, but having conversations with real people, along with all the depth and dimension that comes with that, works better for us as we are very trust/relationship based in our approach. We know that our best matches come through referrals. Referrals from those who know us well and know an org well -enough to see a strong potential and mutual fit.

So, we’ve taken down our web form. And the time we were spending on fielding, researching and responding to web leads we are now spending on deliberately building relationships with those around us who can make recommendations to us (a lot of the time this is other funders). We’re not trying to be unapproachable or close our doors to new ideas and organisations. We just know that our ratio of time spent to fits found will improve by focusing our efforts on things that we know work. We’re going back to more of our ‘beating the pavement’ approach.

I’d love to hear from practitioners and funders on this. Practitioners, what’s your take on this? Have you seen other effective ways of funders remaining open to new conversations? Funders how have you navigated this issue? Did you come to different conclusions?


By Jessamyn Lau 

I think about empathy quite a lot, both in the context of my own ability to feel empathy for others, and the context of philanthropy at the PF, where we see high or low levels empathy have dramatic effects on society and its problems. Increasingly it seems clear that a lack of empathy is the root of most inequality, mis-treatment, or injustice in our world. So is it possible to have too much empathy?

A while ago I was taught a technique meant to be used to alleviate intimidation or nerves from public speaking. It involved a mental projection of white wings on to the backs of everyone in the audience, and thinking of everyone as an angel. Each angel trying to learn, grow, get through the day, deal with problems and figure out life. It’s basically an equalising visual. One day I was practicing this projection technique while I went for a run. Every person I passed on the pavement or pulling out of their drive way I pictured with their angel wings and tried to imagine why they looked happy, sad, bored, tired, excited, etc. A couple of blocks from my house I came across a young boy who had fallen badly off his bike. He was injured and crying. People had gathered, the police arrived and an ambulance had been called. I wasn’t needed as a problem solver in that situation, so just watched for a few moments as people exhibited care, concern and did what they could to help him. Behind the scene, I noticed two women with small children walking towards the boy. They were happy and laughing, obviously oblivious to what was going on. As they approached the scene the injured boy cried out in pain. One woman’s countenance immediately and entirely changed. All thought of her conversation with her friend disappeared and she ran to the boy screaming his name. It was clear the injured boy was her son.

I left the scene, got home and recounted the story to a friend. I burst in to tears as I told them about the woman. It was strange. There was no blood or tragedy. The boy would surely be fine. But for the moment I was focused on the mother, I had felt what she had felt. And it was emotionally overwhelming. I haven’t tried that mental projection technique since then.

Empathy is exhausting. We couldn’t feel what other people feel all day, every day and be productive. We would be constantly emotionally drained, and never get anything done. We suppress our ability to empathise for a reason.

However, on regular occasions it also seems clear that my and others’ levels of empathy are too low. I read about injustices and terrible wrongs being done to real people, and then go and eat my lunch. We all watched with disbelief the Youtube video of the toddler who was run over and then ignored by passers by. I truly believe I and society would be healthier if we all cultivated higher levels of empathy. It seems that most problems and issues are caused by or significantly escalated by a lack of empathy.

Empathy is what drives us to care and act on behalf of others. It makes for healthy and loving relationships, it stimulates good deeds, and often moves strangers to acts of heroism. It is the motivating force behind social entrepreneurs and philanthropy. It is a force for good.

So what is a healthy level of empathy? I’m not sure there’s a way to articulate or quantify that, but we need more of it.

PF Ticker

By Jessamyn Lau

For your interest, a small grab bag of numbers from the PF over the last two months:

Grants 29 (programmatic and family giving)
Board meetings 1
Calls 82
Meetings/site visits/events 53
PF team house points earned 16

I’ll probably do another grab bag of #‘s soon, and perhaps delve in to a little of what the numbers reflect/where they come from. I was reading about/looking at Nicholas Feltron’s annual reports and getting inspired. The discipline and beauty his reports reflect is inspiring. Something to aspire to.

A Maturing Moment

By Jessamyn Lau

In Summer of 2008 I was one of Ashoka U’s first interns. At that time Ashoka U was basically a bunch of half formed concepts and ideas on Post It notes on an Ashoka office wall in Rosslyn. Over the last 4 years I’ve had the privilege of seeing Ashoka U develop in to a thriving network of university campuses, each actively and strategically building social entrepreneurship on their campus. Collectively the network is pushing the current limitations of SE experiential learning, curriculum and research development, and they come together once a year to share all the insights and lessons they learn in doing so. The annual Ashoka U ‘Exchange’ was last weekend. Representatives from 100 campuses (inc. Stanford, Marquette, USD, Harvard, Thunderbird, BYU, Brown, NYU, to name just a few) met at ASU in Tempe, AZ for two days of deep discussion on the very niche subject of social entrepreneurship and higher education.

Despite being at least loosely connected to Ashoka U since its inception, I’m still surprised by the order of magnitude that the gathering grows by each year. This time around representation from several of the attending campuses included university presidents, provosts and deans. And in addition to faculty, admin, students and social entrepreneurs, there was representation from the US Dept of Education, Innosight, and IDEO. The community is flourishing. People are paying attention to what’s being shared at the Ashoka U Exchange and want to be part of the dialogue.

Coming from the even more niche position of working for a foundation funding and building a SE program, I liked what I began to see in terms of practical information sharing. There were other individuals there in very similar positions to me, as well as those who hold similar perspectives on how SE education should and could work in the future -normally finding those people would be akin to a needle in a haystack situation. I’d love to see the Exchange facilitate truly efficient knowledge sharing. This is a problem most conference models find challenging.

One of the most marvelous moments of the weekend went unnoticed by almost everyone. I saw a young student coyly approach one of the social entrepreneurs who had presented at the TEDx the evening before. She had noticed a quiet moment when he wasn’t engaged in discussion and looked approachable. I overheard pieces of the conversation as she complimented his TEDx talk, expressed admiration for his work, asked a couple of questions and asked to share information to get in contact later on. The beauty of this interchange was that it was incredibly real and important to her at that moment. It was clear she had just chosen herself a new, and carefully selected, role model. Her new role model was excited enough about her education and potential as a social innovator to respond warmly and genuinely. I have no doubt that that moment is one that will shape her future, because I’ve had one or two just like it that shaped mine.

In all honestly, in past years the Ashoka U Exchange has been something that was a ‘nice to attend’ rather than a ‘must attend’. After this year it’s going to be one of the very few conferences I will put on my 2013 calendar as soon as they announce the Exchange dates. I’m going back next year for the practical knowledge sharing and genuine relationship building it is beginning to effectively provide for those involved in this niche but growing arena. However, a core reason I will be attending again is I know wonderfully important inflection points of all sizes will be created; points which strengthen our collective belief and ability to create and support social innovators of the future.