Here are suggestions offered by funders in our online Member Discussion Community:
- Get very clear on your Mission or Program Area. What you are willing to fund and where you are funding is critical.
- Align yourself with the experts. Talk to other funders. Talk to the best service providers. Talk to academics.
- Find out why the good programs work. I have found commonalities amongst the best 501(c)(3)s.
- I valued having a narrow subject and geographic focus to be able to ensure our grantmaking matched the changing dynamics of the region.
- I think the due diligence on what is currently happening in the community along with the gaps are key at the beginning.
- The value of listening to the folks providing the services each day can’t be underestimated.
We started, both the board & I, hosting meetings with every expert that we could find—in government; nonprofits; and businesses. We asked them how they viewed the current situation and what they thought needed doing. The answers varied, of course, but that was part of our education and frankly part of the fun in learning so much.
There were more problems than any one small foundation could address, which led us to consider exactly what we uniquely might do. Focusing like that made it easier to get started—and we could always adapt and change as we gained experience.
Twenty years ago I started my Foundation, but I still remember it well. The first thing I did was to scour the Exponent Philanthropy (20 years ago it was Association of Small Foundations) website for examples of mission statements, grant applications formats, grant agreements, letters saying “Sorry, no funding,” letters saying “Congrats you are awarded funding,” etc… I tried not to overthink any one of the things I needed to develop. My thought was, “I need to use these examples to get something down that I can live with—after I have done it for a year or two I can always refine it.”
Using the resources available to me and not trying to be perfect right up front, were things that I think I did well. (I have gone back and re-looked at these things several time over the 20 years I have run the Foundation, and while I have made changes, I am a bit surprised how well I did creating something I was pretty happy with by learning from others’ examples.)
On the “wish I would have” side, I didn’t realize how little I knew about my area of focus during the first year. I wish I had spent more time doing some research, maybe asking front line non-profits to talk to me about the focus area and learning more up front. It took me a few years to figure out what I didn’t know and then another couple years to find the people who could help me learn.
I don’t think it caused any problems—I just wasn’t the most sophisticated philanthropist in the beginning. I asked a lot of questions that in hindsight I should have known the answer to.
Also, l initially thought that because I had been in business and run several large operations with budgets, financial statements, and tax returns, that I would have no problem reading 990s and financial statements for non-profits. Again, it wasn’t until I took an extended session about reading 990s and Audited Financial Statements at an Exponent Philanthropy conference, that I realized that while my background certainly gave me some insight into these documents, I was missing some opportunities to really drill down and understand the organizations better through their financial statements and tax filings.
I’ll concur with what others have shared thus far, and share a few additional thoughts.
Spend time to answer these four questions:
- What do we want to accomplish, and why? (mission)
- How will we accomplish our goals? (strategies)
- How will we know we are making progress? (assessment/evaluation)
- What do we need in order to accomplish our goals? (operations, governance, management)