Inverting the Power Imbalance: Testing a New Grantmaking Program That Enables Nonprofits to Do Their Jobs

By Suzanne Skees, Skees Family Foundation

Excerpted from the original post that appeared on Seeds of Hope, the Skees Family Foundation blog, on June 28

It sounds ludicrous—and it is: Often we donors throw roadblocks in front of the very programs we seek to support. Requiring reams of application pages, hours of preliminary meetings, and acrobatics of performance if and when we fund, is crazy-making for the social entrepreneurs and nonprofits we supposedly trust to solve our most entrenched environmental, financial, educational, and social problems.

This is not just theory. It’s not overworked, underpaid employees whining. We’ve gleaned an inside view of this reality through field visits with and story gathering for our partners, some of the world’s smallest grassroots organizations. Because our grants are tiny and our ambitions are mighty, we’ve always approached our work as if the time we give to partners’ communications, strategy, program development, and fundraising matters more than money. Our multifaceted style of partnership allows us to see a lot more than our partners’ websites, fundraising events, and annual reports. We try to work with them and for them, rather than the other way around.

No one engaged in grantmaking or impact investing wants to believe we’re thwarting our partners’ best intentions. I tried for years to convince myself that the power imbalance between the donor and recipient didn’t have to exist, if only we approached people with honesty and humility. But guess what? It does. To change that dynamic, we asked, could we change the structure of how we give?

Seeking Ways to Bring Greater Efficiency to Grantmaking

We wondered, when we undertook a landscape analysis of our own funding area (global access to education and jobs), if nonprofits could operate more effectively if they didn’t need to spend so much time, energy, and yes, even funding, on chasing down the next grant dollar. [Editor’s note: See Project Streamline’s Guide to Streamlining, a set of tools to help funders reduce the burden on grantees and themselves]

Our grantmaking committee and all-family board engaged in some wonderfully deep conversations about our intentions. Since we have such a small budget (~$150,000), we want to direct every dollar for maximum impact. We agreed on some core objectives:

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Girlbosses: Six Women in Our Family Step Up to Lead Our Social-Change Work

By Suzanne Skees, Skees Family Foundation

Skees Family Foundation logoExciting changes are happening within the Skees Family Foundation. We recently conducted a strategic plan, mission focus, and landscape analysis to help us begin to codify and specialize our evolving grantmaking strategy. This year, we’ve expanded our board of directors, welcoming 6 new women, all family members from across three generations.

Here is a behind-the-scenes peek at how family boards come together and work together—and about gender and philanthropy as we experience both as “girlbosses.”

See the complete post on Seeds of Hope, the Skees Family Foundation blog

What do you see as the role of women in leading and impacting philanthropy?

Photograph by Daniel Kaufman, Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies

Photograph by Daniel Kaufman, Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies

Jasmine: Women bring a very different and unique light onto philanthropy. We bring intelligence, caring, resourceful, creative attitudes, and dedication to the process.

Sally: In trying to impact poverty and social injustice on a global level, it seems to me the philanthropic world is realizing they must reach girls and women to have the most impact. The girls and women in developing countries are the ones raising and often supporting their families. They are often the ones who suffer the most injustice. As women, leaders in philanthropy may have a better ability to understand, access, and connect with these girls. Such access gives these leaders the insight to adjust philanthropic models for maximum impact.

Shelly: Women are the future. We need to shift our societal views of success from domination to peaceful, sustainable global development. We can empower women who are devoted to the power of communication and peaceful resolution strategies. I believe that this upcoming generation of women will be the ones who have been raised to understand and employ this fundamental difference in a positive and peaceful manner.

Brienne: This is an interesting question for me. I believe historically women all over the world have been disempowered and that makes me both angry and frustrated. Even women in power are looked down upon (this video expresses my point perfectly). Disempowerment is a problem not only in the developing world, but also in the developed world, and unfortunately there are so many people who don’t even realize it. Because of this, it is hard to imagine a world where women, no matter race, religion, or ethnicity, will be respected as much as men and it breaks my heart.

I firmly believe women can play whatever role they want to in leading and impacting philanthropy. The question itself poses a problem for me because it highlights the idea that men and women should play different roles. I don’t think a role in the professional world (or in any world, really) should be defined by gender. If there is someone that is willing and able to make the world a better place, they should just do it.

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Testing Our Intentions Against Our Outcomes: And Then, What’s Next?

By Suzanne Skees, Skees Family Foundation

Skees Family Foundation launched in 2004, began grantmaking in 2005, and truly “went public” with a website in 2011. Now, sitting exposed—with our tiny finances, grantee lists, and heartfelt stories posted for all to see—keeps us honest. Our tax returns show we’ve funded some of the most innovative yet practical programs in the U.S., working here and abroad to extend education, jobs, health, and peace. They also show our learning curve shift from throwing dollars at causes to investing in systems change.

Poonam's family jumped from one to three meals a day when she got her new—permanent—job with Upaya Social Ventures, a nonprofit that creates employment for India's ultra-poor women, (c) Upaya Social Ventures

Poonam’s family jumped from one to three meals a day when she got her new—permanent—job with Upaya Social Ventures, a nonprofit that creates employment for India’s ultra-poor women, (c) Upaya Social Ventures

We’ve made some audacious claims on our website:

  • Intention matters;
  • We can make a difference with a microloan, a scholarship, a check, or an hour; and
  • Every small act of care ripples out far beyond what we can see. 

Yet this remains an inequitable world, where our family got a chance at college and paychecks while 100 million global students lack funding for tertiary school and some countries experience as high as 77% unemployment rates.

So this year, we hired a smart, objective, data-digging firm, Third Plateau Social Impact Strategies, to conduct an impact study, to test our intentions against outcomes.

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It’s About Trust: Balancing Relationship with Risk in Social Entrepreneurship

By Suzanne Skees, Skees Family Foundation

The Skees Family Foundation and Th3rd Plateau co-hosted a dine-around for social entrepreneurs and their funders at the Exponent Philanthropy 2012 National Conference last month. We had an “oversold” turnout of about forty highly engaged professionals, with a perfect balance: half funders and half entrepreneurs. Even our organic, locally sourced, family-style dinner was cooked by an Opportunity Fund microentrepreneur. The food and conversation surpassed our wildest hopes—and the input from attendees got me thinking even more deeply about risk and trust, and why we fund very early-stage social entrepreneurs.

Upaya Social Ventures

Our India client Draupadi; two neighbors sharing advice on their new jobs; ultra-poor kaccha house in Godha Village. (c) Upaya Social Ventures

The Indian sun broils down on our heads near the thatched-roof hut where 60-year-old Draupadi stands wringing her slim hands. She’s complaining about her arthritis and her three goats.

I’m in Uttar Pradesh, visiting a social enterprise we fund through U.S.-based Upaya Social Ventures. Draupadi’s skeptical of us because of her experience with local milkmen who charge high-interest loans and pay fluctuating prices. She’s stressed, because none of her new goats are milking. “Don’t worry,” her neighbor Saraswati assures her, “the milkman pays you only 15 rupees, but this company pays much more.” She explains that Draupadi will receive a steady weekly salary all year, through the milking and dry seasons.

As we do here in the U.S., Draupadi takes her friend’s word for it, and she takes a measured risk. After all, she used to get only a few days’ manual labor per month, hauling stones, bricks, or water at construction sites. “This job is better,” she admits. Continue reading