A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Community and Collaboration Drive Family Foundation’s Grantmaking

Image by Gabriele Leonardy from Pixabay

Through community and collaboration, the people of New Mexico have survived harsh conditions to thrive for hundreds of years. As a foundation that funds exclusively in the state, we continue to see the power of these values in our philanthropic work.

Our most recent strategic plan states,

“If we co-create a more aligned, collaborative and integrated social sector, we will help build resilience and prosperity in New Mexico communities.”

As a small, private family foundation with a broad mission, we rely heavily on collaboration to increase our impact. This includes what we look for in our grantees, as well as in how we work with other foundations in our geography. And because we have a small staff and operate in New Mexico, a state where history and culture sit front and center in just about everything, we rely on community voices to help us identify grantees whose work resonates best with the people our foundation serves.

Prioritizing community voice

The presence and influence of community voice is a high priority of ours. Multiple questions in our application try to understand the extent to which the community was involved in developing and implementing programs. Applications that say and demonstrate how community input was sought and applied in program development are more likely to get funding from the McCune Foundation, as are organizations that hire from within the community whenever possible. We also look for organizations that prioritize collaboration as much as we do. Those that can describe where they fit within their ecosystem of partners are more favorably ranked than those that cannot.

Collaborating with other foundations fulfills two key purposes:
  1. We can leverage our grants for greater impact. For example, a $25,000 grant from us can lead to one or two times that much going to the grantees we support.
  2. We can make life easier for our grantees. They are always struggling with limited capacity, and it would be better if they could direct their energy to programs. Along with a number of local and regional foundations, we developed the New Mexico Collaborative Zone Grant. This shared structure allows local foundations to pool resources that can be accessed by organizations doing innovative and collaborative work in New Mexico.

Reducing the burden on grantees

In general, the funding is unrestricted, general operating support, which gives grantees more flexibility in how they work (and is especially useful to supporting collaboration). Our shared request for proposal process means applicants can submit one application to potentially receive funding from multiple sources. And we created shared reporting structures and meetings to keep grantees more focused on their work, rather than fulfilling requirements from several foundations.

Another defining characteristic of the Zone Grant is that participating funders are encouraged to trust that organizations (especially those closest to the communities they serve) know which solutions and approaches are most appropriate.

In our RFPs, we try to be as non-prescriptive as possible. We give a “framing question” rather than a “change statement” to inspire responses from applicants and position foundations to learn from grantees and their communities. For example, in the first iteration of the Zone Grant, we asked questions such as: “What will it take for affordable housing to become a more equitably accessible/available resource in Santa Fe?” and “How can vulnerable families be supported to overcome the barriers they face in building assets and wealth?”

Community and collaboration support our priorities and outsize our grants dollars to bring more positive change to New Mexico.


Henry Rael is director of strategy and initiatives at the McCune Foundation in New Mexico. Henry developed extensive strategic and startup experience in the private and nonprofit sectors before joining the McCune Foundation in 2012. His family has lived in New Mexico for over 350 years and his work continues to be informed by relationship to place and the application of traditional knowledge to contemporary challenges.

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