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:
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.
Prior to my visits, I reviewed grantees’ most recent grant requests, studied their financials, and prepared a handful of questions to ask. Whenever possible, I met grantees “on their own turf,” giving me a chance to see their programs and facilities in person and, I hoped, lessen the power dynamic. These meetings helped me to better understand the nonprofit landscape in our community—the unique roles played by each organization, the gaps, and the common challenges. Even more, grantees inevitably shared with me the ways that they had been helped over the years by our foundation beyond grant dollars.
Read your minutes
Donor intent is at the heart of every decision a foundation makes. Staff members must constantly put themselves in the shoes of the donor as they support the foundation’s mission.
For me, one of the best ways to understand donor intent was to review our foundation’s board meeting minutes, which date back to 1926. Although we no longer have living original donors, the deliberations, concerns, and enthusiasm about various projects voiced by our earliest board members—and documented in the board minutes—provide a good glimpse into their values and giving philosophies. By combining my reading of these board minutes with early letters, family memoirs, and other founding organizational documents, I gained a stronger understanding of the original donors’ priorities, giving practices, and commitments.
Review application files…including rejected requests
As I settled into my new role with the foundation—and an enormous pile of new grant applications—I quickly recognized that it would be valuable to spend some time reviewing previous grant applications. Board and staff comments on particular proposals helped me to understand characteristics of successful proposals and, conversely, characteristics of unsuccessful ones. Reviewing files of rejected requests in particular allowed me to see patterns that were common: a geographic focus that differed from the foundation’s, duplication of efforts, and a lack of buy-in from other funders or lack of local partnerships, among others.
One of the realities of grantmaking is, quite simply, that foundations can’t fund every request. Sometimes we have to say “no” to what’s good so that we can say “yes” to what’s better. Having a solid understanding of donor intent and your foundation’s past precedents can help with the proposal review process. It can also help as you meet with potential grantees who have ideas for new projects.
Ask a lot of questions
I was fortunate to join a small foundation with veteran grantmakers who had years of experience to share. For my first few months on the job—and even today—I peppered my colleagues with questions and received incredibly helpful advice in return. From one of my colleagues, I quickly learned a list of words to avoid in grantmaking and a list of phrases to emphasize instead, such as, “if,” “may,” and “there are no guarantees of funding.” From another colleague, I gained insights into identifying red flags in proposals and how to talk with grantees about concerns with grace.
Don’t be shy about asking questions of others on your staff or others in the field. There are few better ways to learn.
Participate in a training program or conference
Finally, take advantage of opportunities to receive training in settings with other funders. Whether it’s attending a conference, participating in a webinar, or attending a formal training program, learn more about the art of grantmaking from others in the field. Not only will you benefit from new ideas and from seeing how other foundations carry out their work, you’ll find yourself understanding your own organization even better. Look for upcoming events offered by your regional association of grantmakers, search online for topic-specific conferences, and be sure to check out the great webinars, conferences, discussion groups, and other programming offered by Exponent Philanthropy.
Jenna Wachtmann is a program officer with Ball Brothers Foundation, a family foundation based in Muncie, Indiana. She is a graduate of the IU Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
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