A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Ask Your Way to Impact: Funder Dialogue

By Lindsay Matush, The Brown Sisters Foundation

How can a small foundation with a limited grantmaking budget leverage its resources to make an even greater impact? This first post in our 3-part series shares questions to ask other funders in the pursuit of impact. The second shares questions for nonprofits; the third explores the value of foundation self-assessment.

If one thing is certain about philanthropic impact, it is that the path there isn’t as direct as one might think. Rather, it’s windy and marked by accidental and deliberate successes, insightful conversations and observations, timely articles, and always really great dialogue.

This was my experience in 2009 after The Brown Sisters Foundation was endowed with minimal direction for funding criteria. In my quest to create an impactful foundation I became a student of the field, other funders, the nonprofit community, and the community at large.

I began by asking good questions to different audiences. The conversations I had were energizing, the insight phenomenal, and the relationships enduring.

As a first step, to collaborate well and better understand the fields we support, we must draw from the experiences of other funders. Here are some conversation topics and questions that led me to a thoughtful dialogue with other funders in our community.

  • Areas of opportunity. Inefficiency and redundancy are the enemies of impact, but when you articulate them you can uncover opportunity.
    • What seems over- or under-funded in our field or region?
    • What services, measurements, players, or programs are missing?
    • Funders have had countless experiences reviewing redundant grant applications and thinking, “Why isn’t anyone doing ____?”
  • Insight on the players. Funders have so much insight on the movers and shakers in our areas.
    • Who are the thought leaders locally?
    • Who is innovating? Who is really effective?
    • Who sees things the way they could be instead of the way they are?
    • What other stakeholders are engaged – government officials, business-leaders, media, educational institutions, researchers?
    • How well do the players collaborate and what do they need to collaborate better?This part of the conversation often leaves me with a list of people to interview, and if I don’t already know them I ask for an introduction.
  • Insight on the strength of field or funding area.
    • What does the research say about trends and best practices?
    • How well does our city/region reflect where the field is headed nationally? Are we advancing on pace? Are we participating in the conversation? What’s holding us back?
    • Are there opportunities for attracting national or federal dollars to our area? 
  • Vision for the future. This is the best part, especially when we’re talking about impact!
    • What do other funders see as the ideal future for our funding area – one, five, and twenty years from now?
    • What issues will we have to overcome, and how could we help our city/area overcome them?
    • Where are we stuck perpetuating the norm, and how can we help inspire the players to think about what could be?
    • What “big ideas” and “what ifs” have other funders had?

These conversations will sound different depending on your level of experience and connectedness. If you approach them with a desire to learn and to spark each other’s thinking, you will be taking one more step down the road to meaningful impact.

In my next post, I will share questions for nonprofit organizations.

See also: Exponent Philanthropy resources for Getting to Impact with your foundation.

Lindsay MatushLindsay Matush is executive director of The Brown Sisters Foundation in St. Louis, MO. In 2008 she founded Vario Consulting, where she helps small businesses, foundations, and nonprofits become more effective by becoming more strategic.

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