From Simple Messages to Big Decisions: How We’ve Tried to Be There for Grantee-Partners
September 2nd, 2020
Six months ago, as offices closed, events were cancelled, and the shocking reality of living in a pandemic set in, we like the rest of the world were unprepared. We quickly realized that the status quo under which we had operated for much of the past 14 years was not sufficient. We recognized the urgency with which we had to shift our focus to support grantee-partners. Beyond philanthropic investments, we wanted grantee-partners to genuinely feel our support at this deeply unsettling and trying moment.
As a funder that prides itself on relational grantmaking, having the trust that comes from being in relationship during the pandemic has yielded learnings—about actions, about communication, and about decision-making. We have been reticent to share these learnings because we are still learning how to navigate this situation and recognize the inherent position of privilege from which we operate.
But in the spirit of helping both funders and grantees understand one foundation’s thinking process and actions as this situation continues to unfold, here are some learnings gleaned from our response and reactions in this moment:
A Little Bit Goes A Long Way
What is the point of being a relational grantmaker if the relationship is devoid of real substance and trust? When the pandemic began, one of our first actions was to send a simple “thinking of you” email to grantee-partners. Did these emails “mean” something more because of the strong relationships we already had? Maybe, maybe not. But we did hear that this was well-received—and appreciated. We checked in more as the days went by, and those initial emails often were followed by conversations in which grantee-partners had the space to express frustration about the challenges they faced. The personal connection between a program officer and grantee-partner representative created a natural environment in which these candid, sometimes difficult conversations could occur. They shared fears about budgets, programs, and potential closures that seemed on the horizon. These were cathartic interactions that often led to substantive conversations about strategy and potential pivots; but each started with a simple, “how are you?”.
Ask Grantee-Partners What They Want
As we have shared before, grantee interactions are not one-size-fits all. As strains of professional and personal life intertwined (and often were blurred), we found that some grantee-partners wanted to check-in with us more—to update us on developments, to think through a challenge together—while others wanted less frequent conversations. While the “rate of communication” may seem like a relatively minor process item on which to focus, it takes on greater importance when people’s time and energy are stretched thin. By asking early on how often grantee-partners wanted to connect with us and also by making those interactions as productive as possible, we could calibrate accordingly.
We also pivoted from a more formal approach to grant monitoring to one that gives grantee-partners an emotional lift as they looked to adapt as quickly as possible. And, recognizing the whole purpose of these relationships, where possible the Foundation has tried to make strategic philanthropic investments–both in emergency relief and in new opportunities revealed by the pandemic–in as efficient a manner as possible.
We Need to Be Flexible
This seems obvious, but “flexibility” means different things in different situations. In this instance, we have aspired to push ourselves out of our comfort zone. The timing of grant deliverables, increase in payments disbursed, release of certain restrictions (i.e. matching requirements), coordination with peer funders on new mechanisms for grantmaking and loans, and even the hours the Foundation professional team were available all changed in just a few weeks’ time. We also realized that setting benchmarks for a grant requirement that is 18 months to three years away is not only unfair to a grantee-partner, it is a fool’s errand. For several of our long-term grantee-partners, this meant the advent of one-year sustaining grants rather than the multi-year investments that we envisioned before the pandemic began.
“Flexibility” of course doesn’t only equate to more lenient grant monitoring, more rapid grantmaking, or increased investments in new areas. On the contrary, some anticipated grants simply do not make sense at this time. Communicating that to grantee-partners was often very difficult. But that flexibility reflects an acceptance that some aspects of the Foundation’s Road Map—and the grantmaking approaches and strategies it conveys—may need to be on a temporary pause during this moment of extreme uncertainty. These tough conversations have, of course, been met with disappointment but we have worked hard to accompany them with a strong message of partnership through this complicated period.
“Be There” for Grantee-Partners in Different Ways
While the traditional physical site visits stopped, our engagement with grantee-partners actually increased. Now that we can attend any virtual event, program, ceremony, webinar, or convening, there is an opportunity to be “there” to see how grantee-partners adapted and pivoted effectively. While we do not have the bandwidth and human capital to attend everything we would want to see, we welcome this opportunity particularly with the realization that for some this new reality of virtual programming may extend well beyond the pandemic.
At the same time, like others, we learned that these virtual interactions are not the same as a site visit, in which in-person interactions, watching an event, talking to participants, and following up with the professional team all occur in one space and time. The depth of those interactions in that framework simply cannot be replicated digitally, and we miss that.
Always Learn, Question, and Try to Understand
Living and working through this moment is an unprecedented opportunity for learning, for asking why, and for experimenting. We have taken some of our preferred practices and put them aside (as just one example, the Foundation stopped awarding multi-year grants for the time being). This is an opportunity to evaluate our grantmaking and grant monitoring processes, to streamline them, and to focus on the most important elements.
As we began to better understand the current landscape and needs, we tried to respond accordingly. We have offered more hands-on support to our grantee-partners, such as workshops and training in scenario and contingency planning. And we recognize, amidst growing inequity in the pandemic’s impact, that philanthropic investments to underserved and underrepresented populations are even more important now. We are thinking about these investments in a holistic way—what are the structures in the field that need help maintaining or creating?—within the proper context of the new world around us.
We know ours’ is just one approach and that others may have different experiences that warrant other strategies. But by being transparent and sharing some of our thinking and subsequent actions, we hope to add to the growing knowledge base in the field about how funders, grantee-partners, and other stakeholders can act and react in this unique moment.