On a Friday in February 2015, I invited 24 organizations to apply for funding in response to letters of inquiry our foundation had solicited. The next day, our board held a retreat to evaluate the foundation’s grantmaking outcomes over its first 5 years. We knew the board wanted to talk about how to increase our impact, touch more communities in Maine, improve our application process, and develop deeper partnerships with grantees. Our board president had recently traveled throughout the state and talked with hundreds of Mainers about their needs and hopes.
We knew change was in the works.
Still, we did not expect a wholesale shift in the foundation’s mission and objectives, especially right in the middle of a grantmaking cycle. Then and there, the board decided to embark on what would become a six-year pilot project called the Aspirations Incubator (see our previous Exponent blogs to learn more), focused on raising and sustaining the aspirations of rural middle school children in Maine. The Lerner Foundation would invest all its resources in this project. We would shift from supporting 40 grantees to just six, and let go of many longstanding grantee relationships.
We were excited about our ambitious new focus, but we’d have to deliver difficult news to people and organizations hoping to continue partnerships with us. Here is how we managed a challenging and sensitive process.
Communicate Immediately and Transparently
We didn’t wait to reach out to the applicants we’d just mailed. Our board president wrote and signed a letter to grantseekers in the active cycle, and I followed up with personal conversations. Many current and prospective grantees were surprised by our decision to shift focus, and I listened to their questions and tried to demystify our new direction.
I was frank with them. This was as much a surprise to me as it was to them, but I walked them through the board’s process during the retreat. The board felt that the foundation was not truly serving a statewide constituency; they believed that we could have a bigger impact with the limited endowment funds by focusing the mission on a singular issue area; and they believed that the traditional cycle-based grantmaking approach would not allow the foundation to leverage its limited resources to achieve greater impact.
All these elements added up to an appetite for significant and immediate change, and the experience of the board president during his statewide travels served as the catalyst that sparked our new direction and approach to grantmaking.
The toughest conversations were with grantees who had assumed we’d fund them for another year, and who would automatically be cut out of eligibility for future funding because of the organization’s focus or geographic location. I’ll be honest—it wasn’t easy to deliver frustrating news to people at organizations we’d considered partners. But I had built strong relationships with our grantees over the years, and that proved to be critically important. They were receptive to personal conversations, and they felt comfortable asking candid and challenging questions about our shift in direction.
Although I am sure my answers were not particularly palatable—or clear, in some cases, because articulating our new interest area was still a work in progress, I tried to be as transparent as possible in the moment. I also tried to smooth the transitions with other foundation assets we had, beyond money—primarily connections with other funders, knowledge of the field, and possible opportunities for other partnerships.
I knew their work and their goals well, so I was able to help them think through ideas for alternative sources of funding. The trust we’d developed over time went a long way toward helping us make as graceful an exit from our previous grantmaking space as possible.
Open Up Conversations With Other Funders
The Lerner Foundation had previously made grants in the areas of civic engagement, cultural tolerance, and issues affecting women and children. We had been a fairly significant player in those spaces, and so the other challenging conversations I had were with other funders who felt uneasy that we were exiting those funding areas.
We felt it was essential to honor the commitments we’d made in previous grant cycles. We continued any multiyear funding commitments we’d made so that no project, program, or organization was left without the resources we’d promised to provide. This included two three-year grants we’d approved in the previous cycle, which helped to make our departure from these fields less precipitous.
As in conversations with grantees, the strong relationships I had developed with the people and organizations in our funding community made these conversations a little easier, and more productive. I serve on the board of the Maine Philanthropy Center, and participate in several funder affinity groups, including one focused on grantmaking to immigrant and refugee organizations. My connections with colleagues in those groups allowed me to have clear and honest conversations about our plans, and to help manage the transition at the foundation level. Because we were working in alignment with other funders on issue-based grantmaking, I was able to turn to those partners and work together to discuss how some of our funding space could be covered, and how to prevent gaps in coverage at various organizations.
Since we changed course, other foundations have evolved in their own planning to include a greater focus on some of the areas we previously funded. They have brought more attention and energy to the space than ever before. We’re excited to see the work continue, even though we are not actively engaged in those areas anymore.
Moving on from any relationship is hard, but it doesn’t have to end in heartbreak. Letting go of our relationships with former grantees and managing our exit wasn’t a perfect process, but we learned a great deal, and I’m proud of the impact we’re having with the Aspirations Incubator.
Our journey continues to seek transformational change in a specific, urgent issue facing our state. We will update you on progress here at Exponent Philanthropy’s blog. I would love to hear your comments, questions, and ideas. As you consider a big new opportunity or direction, what is hardest to change, or let go?
After spending 15 years in the nonprofit sector, Erin Cinelli has been executive director of the Emanuel and Pauline A. Lerner Foundation in Portland, Maine since 2013. Erin earned a master’s degree in public policy and management from the Muskie School at the University of Southern Maine in 2005, was a 2014 participant in the Exponent Philanthropy Next Gen Fellows Program, and currently serves as chair of the Maine Philanthropy Center board of directors.