Many foundations avoid being the first funder of new initiatives. For the Blackstone Ranch Institute, being first-in is often the ultimate sweet spot.
For over a decade, our foundation has been placing early philanthropic investments in a broad range of new initiatives in the environment and sustainability fields. Very often they have been the first grant. The majority of them have grown into significant networks, campaigns, or organizational efforts that have moved those fields forward in meaningful and substantial ways. During that time, many have asked how we know how to choose the right grantees, and how we know whether or not their proposed initiatives have real promise.
Whereas part of our ability comes from experience and intuition (as in, does this feel right?), a number of considerations go into our initial assessment of opportunity that allow us to base an intuition upon a solid foundation. Our hunches, in that sense, are carefully calculated hunches.
Almost all the innovative social entrepreneurs we support with our philanthropic grants come out of the broad network we have developed over the years. It is a network that we have built one relationship at a time. As the director, I have made sure—particularly in the beginning of our development—to meet prospective grantees in person and have lengthy conversations with them about who they are and what they are doing, a necessary prelude to our assessment of the viability of their ideas and intentions. This is a natural form of early vetting, and one that allows me to align what I am seeing and hearing with my intuition.
My background in journalism and organizational assessment has given me a well-honed attention to the details of who, what, when, where, and how—the basics of making something real in the world. My background has combined over the years with my interest in how to nurture inner creative potential that enables people to positively affect change in their own lives and in society.
These offer vantage points that are essential to my holistic view of the world. I enhance these vantage points with constant reading about the areas in which we fund, and an intake of information from various sources that includes books and articles, social media, organizational websites and blogs, documentary films and television journalism, and everyday conversation.
This is the kind of personal experience and knowledge I rely on to discern new and promising ideas.
Ways to Get Started
There are skills and practices small-staffed funders can develop to discern whether a conversation with someone is revealing something that has the potential to make real and significant change in the world.
Understand the context
I always want to know where a new idea fits into the broader context of its field of practice, and how relevant it is to current developments in that field. If someone contacts me with something he or she wants us to fund, I want to know if the idea has come in response to what they are hearing from partners and those who are knowledgeable about the field, or whether it is an idea they have had that is otherwise disconnected from what is currently going on. Since the majority of potential grantees come from our network, and because our criteria for proposals is clearly articulated on our website, the chances of my coming across the latter are pretty minimal.
I also want to know about the historical and social context that surround the field so that I have a sense of how relevant the proposal is to society as a whole, and whether this is the right moment for this particular initiative. We try to tailor the timing of our grants to those moments.
Look for the emerging potential
Very often new possibilities or ideas are expressed as a hunch or an aspiration, or a partial idea that is more suggestive than fully realized, or even a plan that doesn’t quite seem right because it hasn’t yet matured. If something appears too organized and perfect when it is presented as a new initiative, it may actually be a bad sign, an indication that one is not open to the often messy and unpredictable process of creation. I have found that we as funders must be open to uncertainty and at times some emotional dissonance when we engage with new partners and new ideas—and let those we might fund know that we are open to unpredictability and the potential for developments further down the road that none of us can see.
Listen for leverage points for change
Once I have the context and see some potential, I want to know whether the initiative has been inspired by the identification of a leverage point for change or if it will connect a number of important leverage points (what we might refer to as ‘dots’ on a map) in the larger field in ways that will add something tangible to the current equation and move things toward notable change rather than reinforce the status quo. The grantee has usually thought a great deal about this, and can usually answer this question, either directly or in more indirect ways in the course of a conversation. I listen carefully for that moment. If the degree to which their proposed initiative points to a new connection of dots is either minimal or nonexistent, we are probably not interested. We look for initiatives that have the potential to lead to multiple outcomes at multiple levels.
Assess the credibility
Whenever I am listening to a prospective grantee, I am always asking questions in the back of my mind as the conversation progresses, and I look for the right moments to introduce them into the conversation. Is this credible? Is it really needed in some demonstrable way? Is there a realistic path forward (politically, socially, logistically)? Will it involve other credible participants or partners who will give it collective acceptance as well as impact? Are there other funders currently or potentially involved? Is it grounded in a desire for real action, or will it remain a compelling idea but not go very far? Where, ultimately, is the action point? Without satisfying answers to these questions, it is unlikely that a good idea will evolve into the kind of action and subsequent impact that we look for.
I have learned from experience to be patient as I listen for answers to these questions. I try to avoid an early rush to judgment. If I find myself reacting upon first listen to a new initiative with too much suspicion or an instinctive rejection of that idea, I take it as a sign to step back for a day or two—or even a couple of weeks—until I develop a response based on serious and balanced reflection. Very often the proposals I react instinctively against for some reason (which might include the way in which it is presented, any stereotypes I harbor about the individual or organization presenting it, or simply my own fatigue) are ones that upon further reflection turn out to be among the best we have supported.
Look for passion and excitement
I always want to get to a point in the conversation with an enterprising grantee at which I am excited by the potential that I see, and I want to know that the prospective grantee is excited and sees the same potential that I do. Often I regard it as my duty and privilege to celebrate that excitement when I see it. I want to make it clear to whomever has made the effort and had the courage to approach me that I do see it, and I always attempt to explain what it is that I find exciting about their idea. Passion and excitement are a good sign that something new and dynamic is emerging—even if the process is not clean and orderly.
Look for commitment
No matter how good an idea seems, or even how needed or relevant, it probably won’t get very far unless there is evidence that the person advancing it has some personal ownership of it and is committed to making it happen over a period of at least a few early years. I also need to know whether the rest of the organization is behind the initiative.
I also want to know if it is an initiative that is critical in some way to the organization’s development. The best initiatives are ones that will serve as developmental moments for the organization promoting them and for society as a whole. If both conditions are met, then chances are pretty good there will be enough organizational commitment to provide a better than average chance of some degree of success.
Feel a sense of trust
In the end, after I have looked at all these factors, I simply have to trust in the potential of something to move ahead. Since the foundation’s benefactor with whom I work also operates from the vantage point of trust (rather than one of constant uncertainty or an obsession with too much detail), once we both have established trust, we can make decisions without much complication or subsequent doubt. But there is nothing either random or frivolous about the calculation that has gotten us to that moment of trust.
Lean funders who are catalytic have shifted their philanthropy from a transactional, year-to-year practice of reviewing proposals and writing checks, to a more transformational enterprise that engages people and stakeholders over years or decades.
The current crisis can offer the perfect moment to make a significant change.
In this three-part Learning Lab, you will develop a foundation for practicing a catalytic style of philanthropy. Learn more >>
John Richardson is executive director of the Blackstone Ranch Institute. During the early 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, John investigated the world’s most complex humanitarian relief operations in Africa and the Balkans as a troubleshooter for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He has also been an adjunct professor of international politics at the University of New Mexico, a mediator in civil disputes, and written about travel and politics for a variety of national publications. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in central Africa in the late 1970s. He lives in Taos, New Mexico.