Getting Out Into the Community: Identifying Gaps and Leverage Points for Change

By Carol Gallo, The Y.C. Ho/Helen & Michael Change Foundation, and Jenna Wachtmann, Ball Brothers Foundation 

Originally posted to GrantCraft’s blog

scanning-fb-li“It must be so fun to give money away!” It’s a reaction we’ve all heard when we tell people we are staff members or board members of a grantmaking organization. And yes, it is fun…but it’s also hard work. Good grantmaking – as we know – is about far more than reading piles of proposals or signing big checks; it’s about identifying needs, evaluating potential solutions, and thoughtfully employing dollars to make an impact.

At last year’s Exponent Philanthropy National Conference in Chicago, we presented a session with GrantCraft’s Jen Bokoff about doing just this—identifying priority needs and leveraging points for change, whether in a specific geographic region or around a particular issue area. The room was packed with foundation staff and board members interested in practical tips and tricks for “scanning” the landscape in order to inform good grantmaking.

Missed the session? Here are the top ten ideas we presented to fit a variety of timeframes, budgets, and operating styles.

1) Get your boots muddy

As grantmakers, often our best and greatest insights come when we get away from the comfort of our offices. We need to take time to really listen to and experience first-hand the work of those we fund. This is Jenna’s “muddy boots” theory. As a program officer, she keeps a pair of boots on hand that she wears to site visits to nature preserves, construction sites, etc. And they are very muddy! The insights that come from being on-the-ground (literally!) are critical for good grantmaking.

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OnTopic: A Foundation Communications Tool

ontopic_mission_no-signBy Jenna Wachtmann, Ball Brothers Foundation

We’ve all been there: a mountain of proposals to read, voicemails blinking with messages, board meetings with packed agendas, and the frenzy to get grant checks out the door. In the midst of the commotion of day-to-day operations, it can be easy to lose sight of investing board and staff time in the deeper how’s and why’s of foundation work.

Amidst never ending to-do lists, how can we keep our perspectives centered on the core principles and values that drive our operations? How can we help ensure that board and staff members alike remain well-versed in the philosophies that inform decision making? How can we help to provide additional context for big discussions?

In 2015, Ball Brothers Foundation (and our 4-person staff) added a new “tool” to our communications toolbox to do just this. In addition to communicating with our 13-member board via quarterly newsletters, social media, and our board portal, we initiated a quarterly information piece in the form of a letter that we call “OnTopic.”

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5 Tips for New Foundation Staff

By Jenna Wachtmann, Ball Brothers Foundation

When I started my job as a program officer at Ball Brothers Foundation a little over two years ago, I knew I had a lot to learn. There were technical aspects of working for a foundation that I knew I’d need to master (grant files, legal dos and don’ts), and it was also important for me to quickly immerse myself in the culture of the foundation…the how and the why.

I was fortunate to join a family foundation staff who helped me to jump right in and quickly learn the ropes. As I reflect back on my experience, here are my top five tips for other new foundation staff members:

1. Meet grantees in person
Relationships are critically important to grantmaking. It’s one thing to blindly review a grant request, but it’s an entirely different thing to meet an organization’s leader in person, see an organization’s facilities, talk about an organization’s challenges and opportunities, and see first-hand the organization’s impact on those it serves.

Throughout my first few months on the job, I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with dozens of our foundation’s grantees. Ultimately, these meetings formed the basis for relationships with grantees that are the bedrock of the work I do as a staff member.

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Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic

By Jenna Wachtmann, Ball Brothers Foundation

Today Exponent Philanthropy releases “Philanthropy Lessons: The Power Dynamic,” the latest video in its 9-part Philanthropy Lessons series:

It explores the dynamics of grantor/grantee relationships, and I encourage you to weigh in with your thoughts and practical ideas about managing these dynamics. You can share your comments and ideas below, at, or via social media: #MyPhilLesson. I’d love to learn from you, and I know others would too!

I’ll always remember one of my first visits to a private foundation. At the time, I was working for an inner-city nonprofit organization where I juggled grantwriting, individual donor fundraising, marketing, and a variety of other responsibilities. I was already nervous about the foundation visit, and, by the time I was escorted into the foundation’s gleaming conference room with its dark wood paneling, I was really on edge. But the program officer I met with immediately set me at ease with her friendly demeanor, well-researched and thoughtful questions, and sincere interest in the organization that I represented and the people we served.

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A Program Officer’s Bookmarks: Blogs, Books, and More

By Jenna Wachtmann, Ball Brothers Foundation

FilesNot long ago, I was contacted by a young professional interested in exploring a career in grantmaking. She inquired about what books, websites, and blogs I have found most helpful in my position as a program officer, and I offered to compile a short list to send her way. As a new program officer myself—just shy of two years on the job!—I’ve found myself returning over and over to a number of practical resources as I learn the craft of grantmaking and work with grantees.

The following is my go-to list for new—or even seasoned—grantmakers:

Philanthropy News Digest: Weekend Link Roundup—I try to make time to look at this list on Monday mornings—it’s a fabulous summary of grantmaking news, lessons learned, blogs, etc.

Insider’s Guide to Grantmaking by Joel Orosz—Through the kind advice of another grantmaker, I read this book right before I started my job as a program officer. From a practical standpoint, it’s a real winner. Orosz provides insight into the day-to-day work of effectively communicating with grantees, navigating challenging dynamics inherent in grantmaking, and more. A must read!

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