How You Can Discern and Inspire Promising New Ideas—Before Anyone Else

By John Richardson, Blackstone Ranch Institute

Many foundations avoid being the first funder of new initiatives. For the Blackstone Ranch Institute, being first-in is often the ultimate sweet spot.

For over a decade, our foundation has been placing early philanthropic investments in a broad range of new initiatives in the environment and sustainability fields. Very often they have been the first grant. The majority of them have grown into significant networks, campaigns, or organizational efforts that have moved those fields forward in meaningful and substantial ways. During that time, many have asked how we know how to choose the right grantees, and how we know whether or not their proposed initiatives have real promise.

Whereas part of our ability comes from experience and intuition (as in, does this feel right?), a number of considerations go into our initial assessment of opportunity that allow us to base an intuition upon a solid foundation. Our hunches, in that sense, are carefully calculated hunches.

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Why Invest in Volunteer Engagement?

By Jane Leighty Justis, The Leighty Foundation

Foundations large and small are always looking for leverage. Where and how can we invest our limited assets in ways that will produce the best returns? Will organizations we funded in the past survive these times of shrinking resources and growing needs? As investors in the nonprofit sector seeking innovative opportunities to maximize our efforts, we must challenge ourselves to better support and build organizational capacity.

A logical and often overlooked solution is supporting effective volunteer engagement and the infrastructure that sustains it.

When creating our family foundation, we agreed that supporting organizations in building their capacity to engage volunteers would increase their ability to accomplish their missions, and, therefore, their long-term sustainability. This strategy has provided a tremendous return on our investment.

For example, in 2011 the Pikes Peak Volunteer Engagement Initiative sought to increase the effectiveness of nonprofit volunteer engagement strategies in the Colorado Springs, CO area. The goal was to enhance organizations’ capacity to fulfill their missions and meet community needs. The Leighty Foundation funded and led a five-year Initiative to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations in the region. We invested in individual organizations through Volunteer Impact Grants, in the community through securing experts to provide training support to dozens of organizations, and in the future through our support of the Center for Nonprofit Excellence as host of the ongoing work.

In its first phase, the Initiative convened and connected board and executive leaders, staff members, and volunteers to identify needs and issues related to volunteer engagement. In addition, we fostered peer exchange and learnings through a community-wide symposium on volunteer engagement, seminars, and reflection gatherings.

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Embracing Our Foundation’s Role as a Convenor

By Mickey Gula, Buhl Regional Health Foundation

The Buhl Regional Health Foundation is a new health conversion foundation in Western Pennsylvania, situated on the Ohio state line.

We convened a daylong community health forum last fall to connect community leaders and organizations, explore our evolving region, and identify opportunities to improve the region’s well-being.

Over the past 30 years or more, our area has seen many changes, including the decline of the quality of life for many. We are members of the Rust Belt and live within an area of the country that has seen steep economic decline. Generations had worked in area steel mills to support their families, but our young people have moved away to find work and a better standard of living. Our county has one of the oldest populations in the state.

One of my early steps as executive director was to reach out to other conversion foundations in Pennsylvania. The state has nearly 40 similar foundations that fund a number of initiatives: health access, mental health, healthy eating, active living, and meeting the needs of the aging. I learned that all work closely with their local nonprofit agencies to engage them in conversation, educational efforts, and collaborations to improve the health and well-being of their communities outside of traditional health care settings. The connection these foundations have with grantees also assists them in finding areas of focus that can make an impact in their communities.

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Dispatch From the Mission Investing Institute: Measurement

Originally published by Mission Investors Exchange (June 2017)

This newsletter is coming to you from Troy, Michigan, where we are on day three of our over-subscribed Mission Investing Institute. Scores of foundation leaders and mission investing experts have been convening here at The Kresge Foundation* headquarters since Monday, focused on how to activate around impact investing.

There have been many themes emerging throughout the Institute. One of the most popular among newcomers and seasoned investors alike is measurement. How do you measure impact, both social and financial? Must we agree to tradeoffs on mission or money? What standards are there? How can we respond to skeptics within our foundation? And so on.

“People are getting stuck when it comes to measurement,” founder and senior advisor of ORS Impact Jane Reisman, Ph.D., told attendees. “The good news is that slowly but surely, forward-thinking foundations are beginning to report out on their experiences and returns, with help from intermediaries. Their trials are becoming models for others seeking justification for their impact investments, as they build a case for full board support.”

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Patient Philanthropy: How a Small Foundation Got Big Results

This article was originally published by NPQ online, on April 26, 2017,
https://nonprofitquarterly.org/2017/04/26/patient-philanthropy-
small-foundation-big-results-grant-making/
. Used with permission.

By Mark Gunther 

Philanthropy often seems to be reinventing itself. Strategic plans are undertaken; old priorities get restated; new buzzwords develop. While there is an ongoing argument about how much this kind of churn may actually help the ultimate beneficiaries, a small foundation doesn’t often take the time or budget for that kind of contemplation. Yet small size can enable a certain flexibility and responsiveness that can drive change perhaps even more effectively than the most competent big budget efforts.

At the Eva Gunther Foundation (EGF), a public charity founded by my wife Anne Krantz and myself in 1999, the vision is to give other girls access to experiences similar to those Eva had. Many highly capable girls are financially unable to have life-broadening experiences after school or in the summer, and we wanted to make that possible for some teenage girls. We established two funds: The Program Grant funded scholarships to grantee programs, and the Fellowship allowed a girl nominated by a mentor or teacher to do something specific she wants to do but cannot afford.

This mission brought us into contact with the savvy and dedicated leaders of the many grassroots social service agencies that provide direct services to girls and young women. It was a good match. We wanted Eva’s love and passion—her presence—to infuse everything we did. We wanted relationships with our grantees (our trustees would make site visits, serving as informal program officers). We wanted the grant process to be easy. We wanted individual girls to be helped. Our communication was quite transparent regarding all of this, which was gratefully received by the agencies we supported. “I don’t have to explain, ‘Why Girls?’ to you,” we often were told. “You get it.” And we did. We got them, and they got us.

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Capacity problems? Interns to the rescue!

By Jacob Sharp, Foundant Technologies

The following article first appeared on Foundant’s blog (March 8, 2017). It is reposted here with permission from Foundant, an Exponent Philanthropy Platinum Sustaining Partner.

As your organization grows and opportunities become more numerous, capacity problems will make themselves known. This is true in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and isn’t something you can power through with talent and gumption–even if that’s what got you this far.

This is a tipping point. You need general operating support, but you also can’t get too crazy, or you might cause your accountant undue stress. Do you hire a new full-time employee? Put out the word for volunteers? Lean on your board for increased support? It’s a question your organization will have to answer sooner or later.

Speaking from experience

Foundant faced this same fork in the road about two years ago. We chose to implement a program that simultaneously solved our capacity problem and continually enriches our local community: student internships. Ambitious, hardworking, and looking to prove themselves, college students are a valuable resource for all types of organizations. And we’re lucky to be in the same community as Montana State University, where so many bright students have chosen to further their education.

The average 20-year-old probably knows more about current technology than someone who graduated in IT ten years ago, and they adapt to new technology quickly. Using the Foundant Client Services team as an example, students can be up and running in our software within two weeks, which leaves our more experienced Client Success Managers time to focus on bigger picture items for our clients, while our student team handles the day-to-day support questions that pop up.

Foundant interns work in our Client Services team, Operations team, and Marketing team. And we continually look for new ways we can utilize their youth, energy, and natural curiosity to build capacity and strengthen the Foundant core team.

Related: What I Learned Interning at a Small Foundation >>

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Data, Trends, and the Value of Written Foundation Policies

By Ruth Masterson, Exponent Philanthropy

I can’t count the number of times a member has called with a sticky situation—how to handle a conflict of interest, or a board member not pulling his or her weight—but, when I ask about what expectations or policies are written down, I learn that there’s nothing in place. That’s an awkward time for the board to decide what the foundation’s policy is! Having policies in writing is one of the best ways to avoid being tripped up by such problems.

To learn more from our members about which policies they find most useful, we ask about a number of policies and documents and share the results in our annual report. We’ve learned that foundations are most likely to report use of written conflict of interest statements (80%), investment policies (78%), grant guidelines (76%), and vision or mission statements (70%).You can put this data to use in your own foundation today. Start with the most common policy and work your way down. Starting with a conflict of interest statement, ask if your foundation has this policy, and, if not, if this policy would be helpful in a pinch. Not all foundations need to have all these policies—for example, not all foundations need a donor intent statement—and there are others that your foundation may benefit from that are not on this list. You only want to adopt those policies that are meaningful and relevant for your foundation.

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The Challenges Grantmakers Face in Supporting Technology

By Karen Graham, Idealware

Originally published by Idealware (March 2017)

Can grants managers play a role in helping nonprofits get the technology funding they need to be successful? I led a discussion on this topic yesterday at the PEAK Grantmaking (formerly Grants Managers Network) conference in Hollywood, California. The breakout session, “How To Spot the Missing Tech in Grant Proposals,” covered why and how technology often gets short changed, the planning knowledge and skill nonprofits need in order to thrive with technology, and what is needed for grantmakers to support nonprofits with technology. 

I asked participants to share what challenges they have experienced in regard to supporting technology, what ideas they had for improving systems and practices, and what they needed in order to make this possible. Their responses were so thoughtful that I wanted to share them here. 

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Collective Impact vs. Collaboration: Do You Know the Differences?

Exponent Philanthropy thanks the Annie E. Casey Foundation for partnering to deliver a 3-part “Improving Outcomes for Children & Families” webinar series. This post is based on one part of the series: Collective Impact: B’More for Healthy Babies Case Study. Exponent Philanthropy members may access the 90-minute webinar recording >>

Collaboration is a common strategy to solve social problems, but collective impact—aligning diverse stakeholders around shared outcomes—may be less familiar. And the two are not one and the same.

“There are a lot of folks out there talking about collective impact, and it is somewhat getting watered down as a result…replacing the word collaboration,” according to Jeff Edmondson, founder and executive director of StriveTogether, which helps communities identify and scale what works in education.

What distinguishes collective impact from collaboration?

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5 Building Blocks of a Successful Media Strategy

Every organization, no matter the size, should consider developing a media strategy. Beautifully landscaped Facebook pages and carefully crafted tweets are less important than unified messages and timely goals.

The following general guidelines, excerpted from our Media Toolkit for Exponent Philanthropy members, can be adopted by any nonprofit or foundation seeking to build relationships with its community and craft a powerful media strategy.

Download “Media Toolkit: A Funder’s Guide to Engaging With Members of the Media” (Exponent Philanthropy members) >>

1. Identify a Purpose (“The Why”)

Every media strategy should be rooted in a specific message and sense of purpose. The public won’t respond to your call for attention if you don’t know why you’re calling them. Your campaign should be firmly targeted to both the population you want to serve and the people who can help you serve them. Scattered media strategies result in scattered goals and lackluster results. Before you initiate any campaign, make sure you know why you are doing so.

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