Why We Developed a More Flexible Approach Toward Grantees

– by Aaron Saxe, Jim Joseph Foundation, and Rebecca Shafron, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies

March 23rd, 2023

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, both of our organizations, Jim Joseph Foundation and Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, had been taking gradual steps to improve our grantmaking processes. We were guided by a desire to serve as genuine partners to our grantees, emphasizing information and insights over process so that our grantees have more time to focus on implementing their missions.

Once the pandemic hit, it was clear that business as usual wasn’t going to work. Strict parameters around grant proposals, mid-grant reporting, payout structures and final grant reports were rigid, time consuming and ineffective for organizations that needed to be responding and adapting to the needs of their communities in real time.

After listening to grantees, learning from emerging practices in philanthropy and embracing opportunities for responsiveness, we eased some of the grant proposal and reporting requirements, streamlined our processes and increased the pace and scale of changes to support our grantees in continuing their work seamlessly. We also identified other areas where we could be flexible and enable grantees to devote more time to pursue their missions under challenging circumstances.

Today, many of those changes have become standard best practices for both of our organizations. The net effect has been very positive for us and our grantees. Sarah Fried, chief advancement officer at Hillel International captured the perspective of many grantees: “This more flexible approach has positively impacted use of our time and resources — and led to more productive relationships with each funder. As a data-driven organization with numerous funders and stakeholders, we regularly develop reports and proposals showing our impact or detailing funding needs for our newest initiatives. Knowing that we do not need to create entirely new materials for these funders affords us more time to focus on our core work, which includes supporting Hillel professionals and student leaders.”

We know every funder operates differently — we certainly do — but here are three ways we have both adapted our process to be more flexible partners to our grantees in the hopes that it inspires other foundations to evaluate and evolve how they work alongside their grantees.

1. Grant proposals and reports prepared for other funders often work for us too. Ultimately, grant proposals and reports are a means to an end — to receive important information so that we and our boards can make informed decisions. While we once asked for lengthy, bespoke proposals and reports —posing specific questions requiring unique answers — now the content, the information, drives the materials submitted, whether grantees produced them for us or for other funding partners. Today, we would rather follow up with a few specific questions than ask for a time-consuming, bespoke proposal or report.

2. Deadlines can extend and reports can adapt. During the pandemic, we saw grantees working diligently to adapt, create and re-invent Jewish learning and life experiences. We have worked to meet their innovation and drive with more flexibility — extending deadlines for reporting requirements, postponing check-in calls if a grantee’s time was needed elsewhere and waiving some written reports entirely if there were other, less time-consuming ways to capture grant outcomes. Now, these flexible practices are among our standard operating procedures, ensuring grantees have more time to pursue their missions under challenging circumstances.

3. Flexible grant terms build trust and spur innovation. First in fall of 2019 and then in fall of 2020, Lisa Eisen and Barry Finestone, of Schusterman and Jim Joseph respectively, wrote for eJewish Philanthropy about the many benefits of unrestricted, general operating grants, noting that this kind of support is beneficial both “for what it gives them — dollars, flexibility, capacity, and trust — as for what it saves them from – uncertainty, constraints, and repetitive administrative work.” Indeed, general operating support is a vote of confidence and a way to build trust. Alongside more general operating support, we continue to give multi-year grants with less restrictive parameters, which can help to drive and sustain the progress of one organization and influence the entire field.

We know that every funder has reasons for operating with certain practices. But we hope that sharing some of the changes we’ve made encourages others to think about changes they might consider.

As Sarah Waxman, Founder and CEO of At The Well shared: “There is trust in us to execute what we said that we were going to do, rather than constantly proving that we are doing what we said we were going to do. It’s a subtle shift, but it’s crucial and very impactful. … Knowing that I have funders who both believe in me and trust me gives me a sense of strength in order to move forward toward our shared goals.”

Old operating procedures don’t need to be scrapped entirely; in our examples above, even minor tweaks still had a significant impact on the grantee and our relationship with them. The last three years have shown all of us the incredible dedication of individuals who work to sustain and promote Jewish communal life and learning. It is their dedication and creativity that inspire us to continue searching for ways to be as supportive, efficient, and effective as possible in our work together.

Aaron Saxe is a senior program officer at the Jim Joseph Foundation and Rebecca Shafron is a program officer for U.S. Jewish Grantmaking at Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies. 

originally published in eJewish Philanthropy