Convening to Build Capacity

By Elaine Gast Fawcett on behalf of Exponent Philanthropy

Lindsey Stammerjohn, Juanita Garcia

Exponent Philanthropy member Lindsey Stammerjohn (R) and board member Juanita Garcia

When it comes to learning about important issues and moving the needle in the right direction, convening is a low-cost and high-impact leadership tool you can’t overlook.

The Exponent Philanthropy member John Gogian Family Foundation and executive director Lindsey Stammerjohn began convening grantees in 2010 as part of a capacity building initiative. They recognized common struggles that many grantee partners shared, and chose convening as one way to address these needs while connecting the organizations to one another.

At its first gathering of grantees, Stammerjohn sat in the back of the room. “We wanted our grantee partners to drive the process, and tell us if gathering as a group was valuable to them,” she says. “It became apparent quickly that we needed to have a clear purpose for convening. We had to do more than get everyone together for doughnuts and coffee.”

After the meeting, the foundation surveyed participants anonymously using SurveyMonkey.com, asking them to rate everything from desired location to preferred topics to best time of day. “We take on the costs and planning, but the topics and logistics need to come from grantees. It has to be something they want and need, and they know better what they need,” says Stammerjohn.

To date, the foundation has facilitated six gatherings on topics including board development, fundraising, marketing, and communications. They outsource the meeting planning and venue through the Long Beach Nonprofit Partnership, a nonprofit center that has a facility and a full cadre of speakers. Meetings typically go from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and the foundation provides a simple catered lunch and snacks throughout the day.

Total cost per convening: $2,500.

Here are just some of the benefits:

  • Cost savings—According Stammerjohn, convening grantees has big cost savings. “We want to help our grantees be stronger and better. We realized we could spend up to $15,000 to help build the capacity of one organization, or we do a convening for $2,500 and reach 50 agencies. It’s a much bigger impact.”
  • Trust and transparency—Over time, says Stammerjohn, a real trust has developed. “Convening built a level of transparency and trust between us that wasn’t there before. It changes the relationship in a good way. We’re learning more about their challenges and weaknesses—they no longer feel the need to put on a good show. It’s powerful to build true partnerships.”It takes a lot of trust for grantees to open up in front of a funder, she says. “All organizations are vulnerable in this space—sharing warts and all. I think initially their fear was they wouldn’t get funding from us again if we knew how much they were struggling as a board.”
  • Grantee network—Convening has also changed the relationships of the nonprofits themselves. “We’ve seen a real openness of heart and a willingness to share ideas and support among our grantees,” says Stammerjohn. “They now connect and network outside of the meetings—seeing each other as a resource rather than competition.”

Related resources

Elaine GastElaine Gast Fawcett helps foundations tell their story, educate their stakeholders, and move their mission forward. For 12 years, she has worked nationally to strengthen the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors as a communications and grantmaking consultant. Originally from the Maryland/DC area, Elaine now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband Ted and toddler Scarlett. Reach Elaine at elaine@fourwindswriting.com or on Twitter @4WindsWriting.

5 thoughts on “Convening to Build Capacity

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