Listening In on a System

By Sara Beggs, Exponent Philanthropy, and Colleen O’Keefe, Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation

In 2014, Executive Director Colleen O’Keefe of the Sauer Children’s Renew Foundation in St. Paul, Minnesota, embarked on a listening tour to inform the foundation’s work on behalf of the state’s foster care children and youth. Colleen blogged about the tour in 2014, and, recently, our Senior Program Director Sara Beggs interviewed her to learn even more, including what happened afterward.

You’ve been funding in and around the child welfare system for a number of years. Why a listening tour at this point? 

First, I wanted an understanding of our grantees’ realities, not just a show they felt they had to put on for me. I wanted to come alongside them so I could make better decisions, to get around the typical grantor–grantee power dynamics and create authentic relationships.

Equally powerful was the desire to be on the ground, learning about the experiences of children who land in foster care—both what happens when they grow up in care and what happens when they age out of the system. I wanted to see the whole picture, from the inside, before we created our funding strategies.

And, maybe most important, I knew our current strategies weren’t changing children’s outcomes. I felt desperate to figure out how to be more effective, and I knew I didn’t have the answers.

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Why It’s Important to Start Planning for Leadership Succession Now

By Jill Blair, strategy and organizational consultant, and Jeffrey M. Glebocki, CEO, Strategy + Action/Philanthropy

Passing the batonThis post is the first in a 2-part series on leadership succession planning. Exponent Philanthropy members can explore these themes further in an article by the same authors in our forthcoming Fall 2015 issue of Essentials.

“Our foundation had succession planning thrust upon us,” shares John Valliant, president of the Grayce B. Kerr Fund. “We had been talking about succession for some time, and then we were blindsided by illness and death.”

Fortunately, not every foundation faces such sudden and tragic events. But experiences of this nature are profound reminders of the importance of intentionally preparing for the future.

We know that leadership transitions are inevitable, and that they are moments of evolution and change that affect people and organizations. Leadership transitions can also be disruptive and create a sense of loss—so much so that we often choose to avoid thinking ahead and acting on that inevitability.

The good news is that we can manage transition by being prepared in the form of succession planning. There are many dimensions of succession, from changes in board members or board and staff leadership to engagement of next generations. In every case, leadership succession is fundamentally about the orderly transfer, or sharing, of power.

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A Citizen and a Small Foundation Awaken a Community’s Ties

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

Photo credit: Bill Birkemeier;

Photo credit: Bill Birkemeier;

In America, we recognize that individuals working toward common purpose can accomplish great things. We celebrate well-functioning teams, especially in the realms of sports and business enterprise.

In our communities, our states, and the nation as a whole, however, we are divided. We separate ourselves by class and race, and pledge ourselves to political ideologies, parties, and faiths. According to studies of our social and economic landscape, we are becoming two nations—families that live comfortably, and families that face daily hardship and an uncertain future.

Etched into our currency is the inscription, “Out of the many, one.” But we are finding it more and more difficult to fulfill the promise we made to ourselves.

In this era, communities where residents pull together to benefit everyone—not just one group or class—seem extraordinary. These places remind us of the enormous scope of what can be accomplished when residents associate with each other regularly, build trust, and develop a shared understanding that the health, welfare, and opportunity of each individual is wrapped up in the well-being of all.

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From Optimism to Action at Recent Nexus Global Youth Summit

By Sapphira Goradia, Vijay and Marie Goradia Foundation

A few weeks ago, I found myself at the United Nations, in the company of hundreds of millennials intent on changing the world for the better. I was attending the Nexus Global Youth Summit, a gathering now in its fifth year that aims to ‘bridge communities of wealth and social entrepreneurship for dialogue, education, and collaborative problem solving.’

In the short time I’ve worked in philanthropy, I’ve learned that it is possible to spend 100% of your time attending conferences, summits, and events, leaving little time for the actual work of running a foundation. For me, every event I attend has to either provide an educational experience that I couldn’t get online, or offer a worthwhile networking opportunity. Nexus fulfilled both these requirements.

The Nexus Global Summit brings together social entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, investors, and philanthropists with a passion for a wide range of issues—everything from the discrete sciences to human trafficking. Putting all these interests in a room together can be overwhelming, so the Nexus team opens an online portal to participants a few weeks before the event. The portal allows participants to upload their bios, specify interest areas, and connect with others before, during, and after the summit. I had written in my profile that I was interested in impact investing, so was included in an impact investing sub-group on the site, where participants shared useful materials and updates.

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Five Barriers to Focus and Ways to Push Past Them

By Sara Beggs, Exponent Philanthropy

In our many conversations with funders, we hear that finding a focus—for all or part of your giving—is the most fundamental step you can take on a journey toward fulfilling philanthropy.

Focusing at least part of your giving is not only powerful, it’s critical. Our communities desperately need new solutions to social challenges. We need funders who are willing to dig deep into an issue, learn everything they can, ask good questions, and take smart risks. And nonprofits need partners to learn with them, tackle issues with them, and develop new ideas with them. Being this type of partner takes focus.

What is a foundation’s most compelling focus? We think it lies at the intersection of values and passions, community needs, and your unique dollar and non-dollar resources. And we think every funder can move toward it.

This past fall, we convened eight funders interested in focusing their giving. Over the course of our 7 months together, we named several rationalizations for not focusing. We share five below, accompanied by some ways to move past them.

1. Good deeds and good intentions will lead to good results. We may convince ourselves that acts of kindness and altruistic desires allow us to operate outside life’s realities. Unfortunately, success in philanthropy requires the same effort as success in any other realm: concentrated energy, willpower, and resources. In short, good philanthropy takes discipline and hard work.

Solution: Ask your board members and staff to consider how real change occurs. Engage in a dialogue—led by a consultant or someone at your foundation—to challenge assumptions about success in philanthropy and inspire them to have a greater vision for what’s possible with focused effort. We are happy to connect you with fellow members who can make this case.

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Voices of Emerging Leaders in Philanthropy

By Stephen Alexander, Exponent Philanthropy

Join me to explore the values and visions of emerging leaders of a social-minded generation. Below is an excerpt from my recent conversation with Hannah Quimby, director at the Quimby Family Foundation and 2015 Exponent Philanthropy Next Gen Fellow. 

One of things I love most about these conversations is learning about younger funders’ passions. What are you deeply passionate about? 

Quimby2I’m really passionate about developing relationships with the nonprofits we’re working with. Here in Maine, it’s actually possible to build consistent, sustained relationships, to get to know the people doing the work, and to provide support, not just through grantmaking but in other ways as well.

I’m also passionate about outdoor education, health and wellness, and creating access to healthy, local, affordable food. I believe positive outdoor experiences will help create the next generation of people who care about the environment. It can be viewed as a public health strategy too, because being outdoors improves so many measures of health.

For the past five or six years, I’ve volunteered with Bay Area Wilderness Training, a nonprofit based in Oakland, CA, focused on getting kids outdoors. For the last year, my fiancé and I have actually been on the road serving as ambassadors for the organization (the regional model is expanding nationwide and is called The Outdoors Empowered Network). We meet with people who have met with the director or who want to learn more about the trainings and programs.

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The Transformational Power of Giving

By Patti Giglio, PSG Communications, LLC, on behalf of Exponent Philanthropy

Pierceton Woods Academy, a residential home for teenage boys in northeast Indiana, is the type of community based nonprofit you might expect to be the benefactor of philanthropic giving. The academy helps troubled boys by stepping in, temporarily, for their families and offering specialized structure and support.

But the Dekko Foundation didn’t partner with Pierceton Woods as a means of giving to the boys. Its goal was to provide the boys the opportunity to be contributors themselves.

“When young people are empowered to identify and address a community need, they try things and sometimes they succeed and other times they fail,” says Kimberly Schroeder, program officer for the Dekko Foundation. “But, overall they develop a realistic understanding of their community and themselves while gaining important skills such as critical thinking, problem-solving, and decision making.”

Teenagers on a play ground at backyard.


The Dekko Foundation has supported the development of philanthropically minded citizens for 20 years. Its successful Youth Pod model matches community nonprofits and adult mentors with a group of 13- to 18-year-olds who are offered $15,000 to address a community need. “Research shows that philanthropy and service to community are learned skills,” says Sharon Smith, the Dekko Foundation’s program director. “We help teens learn to bring about positive community change by doing. In the process we are changing how people think, believe, and act.”

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Listening and Learning to Assess Needs, Find Your Niche

Scanning, a seldom discussed but powerful strategy for philanthropic impact, involves taking time to learn more about your community or a particular field to find out how your giving can be most effective. It involves intentional learning to develop a giving focus or design—or refine—a giving strategy.

Why scan?

Because the most effective giving is grounded in the donor’s values and real needs, funders use scanning to discover priority needs, including those that are ignored. Funders often ask this key question: Which issues in my community or area of interest are most serious and most in need of attention? Choosing to address a significant problem or issue overlooked by other funders is a powerful strategy for impact.

Funders also use scanning to find out more about their chosen focus areas. Through scanning, you can learn about barriers to progress, promising strategies, approaches that haven’t worked, effective agencies and programs, public funding streams, potential collaborators, and opportunities to make a difference.

I’m on a Listening Tour, and It’s One of the Best Things I’ve Ever Done

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Change Demands More Than Programmatic Grants

By Chris Thompson, Director of Regional Engagement, Fund for Our Economic Future & Jeffrey M. Glebocki, CEO, Strategy + Action/Philanthropy

HiResPhilanthropy should support efforts that help stakeholders understand the performance of key civic systems

As grantmakers, we know the programs and projects we support are often by themselves insufficient to create the level of substantive change we hope for in the communities and issues we care about.

Yes, a well-run tutoring program can indeed change the lives of children. There are so many factors, though, that go into improving high school graduation rates—to use one common measure of systemic educational outcomes—that no one tutoring program alone can drive systems change.

Building the management capacity of local food banks, as another example, is likely to result in more efficient distribution of food, more effective use of volunteers, and better coordination between multiple providers. Again, though, the best-run agencies alone cannot shift fundamental systems change—in this case, ending hunger.

We highlight this reality not to suggest that supporting effective programs is futile, nor to dissuade funders from developing and sustaining a focus in their giving. Rather, we raise these issues as a reminder to explore how at least part of our grantmaking can be channeled to help us and our grantees better understand and influence the civic systems that shape the quality of life in our communities.

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Articulating Our Foundation’s DNA

dna-document_Page_1By Janis ReischmannHau`oli Mau Loa Foundation

We all know the important role the board plays in hiring and reviewing the chief staff person in a nonprofit organization, but I’ve been thinking recently about a second important role our board is playing that is critical to our evolution as a foundation. That role is defining, articulating, and transmitting the values of the foundation as well as helping us determine how those values are practiced across the organization. How did our board do this, and why has it been so important?

When I joined Hau`oli Mau Loa Foundation as the first staff person in 2008, the two founding board members who hired me were the only people affiliated with the foundation who had known its benefactor. When hiring me, they realized that they wanted to translate their knowledge of the benefactor’s values and her aspirations for the foundation, which had not been well-documented, to those who would be working at the foundation and responsible for carrying out its mission. They also had a sense of wanting to ensure, as the board grew and as they would eventually transition off the board, that the next generation of board members were firmly grounded in what our foundation’s benefactor valued and how she expressed those values.

As a result, the board, together with staff, developed a set of organizational values. Those values served us well for the first several years, and the communication of those values to staff were often accompanied by stories of the benefactor and how she practiced one value or another.

When we got ready to add a new board member, someone who would be joining the board with no knowledge of our benefactor, the founding board members decided we needed to develop a short document that could be given to new board members as well as new staff that summarized our benefactor’s values and how the expression of those values have helped to formulate how we behave. We now think of what’s in that document as “our DNA.”

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