Making the Most of a Funder Update: Strategies to Keep Funders Engaged in Your Work
September 16th, 2022
With information at your fingertips, and distractions only a click away, it is more important than ever to understand the “best” ways to get and hold people’s attention. At the Jim Joseph Foundation, we receive compelling and diverse grantee-partner updates that grab our attention, pull us into their work and impact, openly share challenges and learnings and leave us excited about their future plans. After recently receiving a grantee-partner update – and reflecting on how helpful it was – we realized that there are many other types of updates, utilizing entirely different approaches, that are equally as effective.
Whether via email or Zoom, in large peer funder groups or smaller ones, delivered weekly or quarterly, there is no single “right” way for these updates to occur. There are nuanced differences in each approach that best serve the grantee-partner’s unique circumstances and goals. In fact, as we compiled the examples below, we realized there were even more effective forms of updates than we had initially thought, which is a testament to the professionalism of the partners with whom we work. We think there is value in both grantees and funders considering these various forms — which can all work well depending on the specific organization, its stage of growth, content shared, list of funders and goals of the update itself. We view grantee-partner updates (and our sharing the thought process behind them here) as part of our approach to relational grantmaking, which is both premised on and leads to open and honest communications.
As noted, there are many organizations in our portfolio who share effective updates with their funders; we asked six grantee-partners who each utilize a different form and style to share insights as to why their specific choices work best for them:
The Written Word
Sometimes email still works best, with benefits from the foundation’s perspective that these are easy to forward and share with colleagues, board members and others. We also have as much time as we need to digest the information, and these updates “live forever” on our computers, if so desired. Below are three grantee-partners sharing insights about their distinct form of email updates.
In addition to a narrative, Sefaria’s quarterly email updates utilize statistics and imagery to tell a story.
I started writing quarterly investor updates in 2017, in response to my growing sense that as Sefaria continued to mature I was losing the bandwidth to adequately keep in touch with Sefaria’s most important supporters, investors, and friends. There was so much going on then and I wanted to make sure that all of our most important stakeholders, and not only those funders who received regular grant reports or project updates, were kept in the loop. The title of these updates – Sefaria’s Quarterly Investor Newsletter – reflect our belief that Sefaria’s supporters are not just donors involved in unidirectional gift-making, but true investors––engaged partners who are eager to understand our progress, our problems, and the opportunities that lie ahead. These letters are an integral way for me to communicate and maintain relationships with this important segment of the Sefaria ecosystem.
As a product that is best experienced live, every update contains a visual element – an image highlighting a new product or feature, or when the occasion calls for it, a video demo showcasing some experience on the site. Other constants include library stats, a review of recent traffic, and a fundraising update. The fundraising update always includes an overview of available opportunities and will occasionally prompt a response from an investor that opens the door to a new partnership. The library stats and traffic updates are powerful, too; for the most part, these highlight exciting growth and I’m proud to share them, but occasionally there are slower quarters or dips in traffic that keep us honest, alert, and motivated to intervene when the story our numbers are telling is not the same story we want to be sharing to our donors.
Maybe most importantly, these updates allow me to give our investors and supporters a small taste of the nachas my team and I enjoy as the stewards of this beloved project. – Daniel Septimus, CEO, Sefaria
Repair the World’s weekly email shares updates and impact with its Board and major funders simultaneously.
I’ve found that the key to having meaningful interactions with board members and funders is to engage them in strategic conversations, to really partner with them on the hardest questions and dilemmas I’m facing as a leader. This approach provides me with valuable thought partnership and also engages our stakeholders in a deeper way, beyond just hearing from me about the impact of Repair. So, to ensure that our valuable time together can be used for more strategic questions, I get the more basic updating done in advance. I send out a weekly email to our key stakeholders—board members, committee members, key funders, and our senior leadership team—all together, providing high-level updates on programming, development, and operations. I find weekly is the right cadence; if we did it less frequently there would be too much information to absorb at once. We also use the weekly updates to celebrate milestones and call out stakeholders or staff members when they go above and beyond in their work. These updates, in their simple and easy-to-digest email form, have become an important part of our culture of transparency. – Cindy Greenberg, President and CEO, Repair the World
Honeymoon Israel’s quarterly updates are nicely designed PDF slides with programmatic information, recent learnings, and imagery.
At Honeymoon Israel we have always seen our funders as truly equal partners in building HMI, caring for our participants and alumni, and building a better Jewish world. That approach requires HMI to be transparent in our relationship with our core funders. To accomplish this goal and support our relationship it is essential to us that we communicate clearly and often where HMI is headed, the challenges we are facing, and the opportunities ahead. Thus, about every 12 weeks, we email our funders a slide deck in PDF format that covers numerous areas of our work, including upcoming and recent trip information and impact (based on survey data), post-trip community engagement offerings around holidays and other events, internal staff news, and more. Each section in our update is accompanied with pictures that help to bring to life who we are as an organization and the people we engage. Particularly during the height of the pandemic when HMI trips were on hold, these updates helped convey the range of ways we stayed connected and helped young adults engage in meaningful Jewish life. – Michael Wise and Avi Rubel, co-CEOs, Honeymoon Israel
The Spoken Word
Other grantee-partners provide updates via conference calls or Zoom. From the foundation’s perspective, these are good opportunities for dynamic presentations, conversations, thought partnership and Q&A in real time. Often, we also have an opportunity to interact with peer funders, some of whom we may not know so well. These updates can be both more frontal or conversational, and include group brainstorming or feedback on the grantee-partner’s opportunities or challenges. Detailed agenda setting that includes topics that will be addressed, along with the amount of time to be spent on each one, plays a significant role in making these conversations efficient and effective. Here are three grantee-partners sharing insights about their distinct form of updates via conference call or Zoom:
The Jews of Color Initiative holds calls with multiple funders every 10-12 weeks as opportunities for both updates and education.
Our funder briefings at the Jews of Color Initiative are a very critical part of our efforts to create more welcoming, inclusive Jewish communities They’ve evolved in ways that reflect the depth of our work and the interest our funders have in it, as we engage some of our communities’ most influential leaders in very challenging conversations emerging from the field. When the JoCI first started, we thought we would update funders through standard mid-term and annual grant reports. However, every week I’d receive at least a few interesting and important questions from funders trying to understand and learn more about experiences of Jews of Color in Jewish communities and how those experiences were reflected in the field. These deep and provocative questions required intensive written responses. To economize our response efforts and to engage our funders in dialogue, we transitioned from individual email responses into regular conversations with funders together. This enabled them to learn from the JoCI and from each other. Today, our funder briefings occur every 10-12 weeks and include updates on JoCI progress and conversations on the field’s most complex and interesting issues related to Jews of Color. Funders ask questions, opine, take risks, and sometimes explore out loud what it might look like to approach our collective work differently—in a less racism informed way. We could never have these experiences over email. For the JoCI and our funders, we need, and together we cultivate, an environment that is rigorous, intimate, brilliant, trusting, kind, sometimes risky and always in service to the work, our colleagues, and the field. – Ilana Kaufman, Executive Director, Jews of Color Initiative
Foundation for Jewish Camp prepares a Zoom presentation followed by Q&A.
From the very outset of the pandemic in March 2020, FJC convened monthly calls hosted by its Board Chair, Julie Platt, and myself to update the heads of key foundations of FJC’s work on behalf of the field. In these initial funder updates, FJC shared progress reports of its multi-pronged strategy to help camps overcome the $150 million funding gap caused by overnight camp closures in summer 2020. Each month, as FJC updated the tracking results showing a reduction of the funding gap, more funders were inspired to share their own financial commitments. Created initially to address the immediate COVID crisis, these calls have continued to receive very positive funder feedback as an effective tool for transmitting news and inspiring the funder community to act. Now held quarterly, these calls attract approximately 30 professionals and are intentionally limited to 30 minutes – enough time to communicate salient points, respond to any questions, and occasionally, invite an outside expert or a funder to share insights, perspectives, and news of innovative funding approaches which could be replicated locally, regionally, or nationally. Whether it’s an outsider or myself delivering the remarks, we often pair them simultaneously with slides to help convey both our impact and needs. One measure of success of this approach: when a usual participant cannot attend, they ask to receive a recording of the call. – Jeremy Fingerman, CEO, Foundation for Jewish Camp
Upstart holds quarterly Zoom calls with multiple funders, beginning with a presentation and concluding with conversation and feedback.
When UpStart and several partner organizations were considering a merger, we organized and convened a funder advisory group made up of program officers from current and prospective foundation funders. We wanted a space to build trusting relationships to foster bi-directional learning—enabling us to learn from those with broader contextual insights and to share our insights so that our work would be better understood. Almost five years later, that group, the UpStart Philanthropic Advisory Council, still meets on a regular basis about every quarter. The design of the meetings has stayed true to the original intent, with the participants’ experience in mind. Following an update from our team on a specific, timely topic related to UpStart’s work and the Jewish social entrepreneurship field, we transition to a conversation where we lean on the thought partnership of our funders on the topic at hand. We regularly ask for feedback to ensure the topics of discussion are as relevant and helpful for the participating funders as they are for us. These funders are our partners, not our customers, and the substance and transparency of the conversations reflect that. Learning with them makes our relationship much more effective since we’re in a somewhat constant conversation, not just around grant reports or requests. The field has benefited too because the calls have fostered partnerships across our funders for new initiatives, many of which don’t involve us directly but further the overall impact of the sector. – Aaron Katler, CEO, Upstart
These examples are just a sampling of the compelling updates that we receive. Other effective tools to consider given an organization’s objectives include the use of hyperlinks, video, and in-person meetings if the opportunity arises. We also recognize that group funder updates are only one way that grantee-partners stay in touch and build relationships with their funders. Individual calls and reporting from grantee-partners provide more opportunities to address funder-specific needs and updates. Conversely, in reviewing the various forms of updates, we found that more conventional newsletters (i.e. Constant Contact) do not offer the level of personal touch that we find valuable when engaging with grantee-partners. Newsletters can be quite effective in updating broader constituents about organizational updates and programmatic opportunities but, in our experience, they do not invite a follow-up conversation with the sender that we sometimes look to have. We hope this article sparks ideas for other organizations as they think about the best ways to convey impact, build relationships, and think through challenges and opportunities.
Aaron Saxe is a senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation.