By Suzanne Skees, Skees Family Foundation
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:
- We find very small startups where our small grants can make a huge difference.
- We seek leaders with strong integrity and flexibility—because no matter the program or product, it takes great people to get to the goal.
- We leverage our research (online), referrals (from colleagues), and relationships (through travel and writing).
- We do all the work: finding, vetting, and then funding.
- We give unrestricted grants.
- We require minimal reporting—a five-part questionnaire that reveals fund dispersal and lessons learned.
- We ask what more we can do for you.
- We ask how we can improve as your partner.
We do not accept proposals for grants. We’d rather spend our time discovering organizations that match our mission and specifications, while they spend their time doing their specialized work.
Reporting and Supporting
We’ve always stressed that we want our partners to spend as little administrative time on SFF as possible. What does that mean? All our small discretionary grants directed by board and family members require no reporting at all. For our four mission grant categories, we ask for one brief written report in one year—either of their creation or this simple five-part questionnaire.
And then we ask, “What else do you need?” An executive director wearing too many hats might need help composing a pitch to potential other funders. An organization may want a story that validates its work from the outside and provides fodder for their website, reports, and presentations. Another may ask us to write a letter on their behalf, or attend a meeting or conference with them, to advocate for them. Trying to help rather than hinder, we check in occasionally with project ideas rather than punitive questions.
Putting It Into Practice
How does the new strategy look in real life? We develop friendships with other funders, social-enterprise incubators, and our current nonprofit partners, who provide ideas for pertinent grantee partners. We read industry news and explore Internet searches for startups and successes in our field. When we find them, we read all we can about their program, leaders, finances, and impact—and then we contact them. Sometimes, a new partner expresses shock over having been vetted and selected without their knowledge. Along with their shock comes relief.
As 21st century global society evolves away from top-down charity toward cross-sector collaborations and bottom-of-the-pyramid investments, we’ve awakened to some clear realities. Aid is needed in circumstances such as disaster relief, but charity changes nothing. In fact, the same inequities that produce the need for charity in the world also produce the wealth that funds philanthropy. We can continue to watch the gap in income and resources widen and throw millions—or even billions—at the symptoms left festering. Or, we have the option of applying best practices of capitalism to the social sector, partnering with local leadership and investing in underserved individuals, to co-create resources needed and outcomes desired in each village and slum, city, and country.
Suzanne Skees works in international development as director of the Skees Family Foundation, which supports innovative self-help programs in the U.S. and 37 developing countries in education, enterprise, health, infrastructure, and peace. She studied English literature (Boston College) and world religions (Harvard Divinity School). She travels from schools to slums, prisons to farms, serving as a storyteller for nonprofit workers, social entrepreneurs, and their courageous clients who toil every day to end poverty and create equality. Find her stories on Seeds of Hope blog and Huffington Post.