Beyond the Check

Beth Feldman-Brandt

The moniker, "Grantmakers in the Arts," could suggest that our job as funders is solely to read proposals and write checks, a straightforward transaction that takes a hiatus when the award letter goes out and revives when the final report comes in. In reality, we know that the most important work we do may take place before the proposal is even submitted and that the impact of our work only improves as the quality of our ongoing interaction with our grantees strengthens.

In April of this year, GIA launched its first "phone forum," a virtual workshop held by conference call that addressed the topic," Beyond the Check: Strengthening Relationships between Funders and Grantees." About twenty grantmakers, representing a range of GIA members, phoned in for this informational discussion about the opportunities and pitfalls associated with both formal and informal programs for grantees.

Technical assistance, convening opportunities, formal "institutes," and just plain good customer service can result in stronger grant outcomes, a positive and ongoing sense of community, and a process that is more transparent and user-friendly. It can also be a gratifying way for program officers to apply the knowledge they have gained through their work.

But programs for grantees must be carefully considered. Some programs may promote larger goals of the foundation but not align with grantee goals. We may unreasonably expect big efforts for small grants. Working closely with grantees may blur lines when objectivity is called for, as in evaluating past grants or assessing new applications. And, there is always the imbalance of power to be addressed head on.

A recent study by the Center for Effective Philanthropy entitled, "Listening to Grantees," surveyed 3,200 grantees of large foundations to see what they valued most in their relationship with these funders. While they were, of course, happy with the check, the study found that their satisfaction with and perception of a foundation depended more on three dimensions:

  • Quality of interactions with foundation staff: fairness, responsiveness, and approachability
  • Clarity of communicating the foundation's goals and strategy: clear and consistent articulation of objectives
  • Expertise and external orientation of the foundation: an understanding of the fields and communities of funding and an ability to advance knowledge and affect public policy.

While there are certainly variations in attitudes and practices between big and small foundations, this research points to the value of what a funder can provide "beyond the check."

Customer Service and Common Courtesy

Everyone benefits from a system that supports, engages, and screens prospective grantees before a proposal is submitted. We receive stronger proposals and applicants save time and resources applying only to appropriate funders. Promptly replying to calls or email inquiries, being clear about the review process, and giving nonprofits sufficient notice of changes in funding priorities are all reasonable expectations.

Informal Interaction

Ellen Holtzman uses four parameters to describe the Henry Luce Foundation's interaction with grantees: attitude, materials, actions, and interest. Even though the staff is small, they still try to be helpful throughout the application process, indicating when a request is not a good fit. Once a grant is made, the Luce Foundation sees itself as a resource to the field it supports, providing information that could lead to collaborations, other funding sources, or shared learning. The Foundation Web site links to grantees' sites, and paperwork is kept to a minimum. Board members conduct site visits when they travel and are kept up to date with exhibition catalogs and other materials supported by the Foundation.

As a locally-focused foundation, the Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation in Philadelphia actively convenes its grantees for informal breakfast discussions, facilitates gatherings of the cultural community, requires board members to make site visits, and provides informal technical assistance, often linking grantees to others who have specific expertise. The Bartol Foundation sees this interaction as an investment in the broader cultural community and a way to expand its impact beyond the dollars it distributes.

Improving Grant Outcomes, Strengthening Organizations and Building Trust

Investing in programs that support and strengthen grantee artists and organizations can improve the chances that funded programs will succeed. Andrew Campbell of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission emphasizes that LACAC's position as a public agency gives it a strong mandate to serve the county with expanded programs. Its programs include technical and production support, roundtables on specific topics, internship programs, organizational grants to strengthen small and mid-sized arts organizations, and an Arts Leadership Institute. All are geared toward improving the overall arts infrastructure in L.A. County while creating new networks.

Ongoing relationships with grantees build trust. Trust translates into more honest discussions during the grant period and an increased likelihood that grantees will tell us when things go awry. Grantees are often wary of telling a funder when a mid-course correction or even a total revision is needed to achieve outcomes originally proposed. More frequent interaction during the grant period can ease the way to a forthright discussion on how to achieve the best work.

The Bigger Picture

Supporting an array of arts organizations allows us to see broad trends, areas of common concern, and opportunities for research or advocacy. Michael Moore at the Wallace Foundation believes that the knowledge and insights of grantees can have value for other groups, funders, and policy makers. He considers this knowledge to be an important return on the foundation's investment. Using its publications and Web site, Wallace disseminates research findings beyond its grantees and focuses its resources in areas that mesh with its institutional priorities. Foundation staff is clear with grantees that by increasing honesty between them both parties put something at risk, but both also stand to reap a valuable return.

Clarity in communication with grantees is especially important when grantmaking must also to promote broader foundation goals . For example, data collection and evaluations of grantee programs may be designed to support research for the cultural field, rather than the specific outcomes of one funded organization. We need to find appropriate and respectful ways to make this effort useful to both funder and grantee or to be clear that participation in an evaluation or research project is the "price of admission" for receiving a grant.

Power: The Elephant in the Room

We may consider ourselves accessible and honest, ready to engage grantees as colleagues, but the reality is that the balance of power between grantors and grantees is radically uneven. Even if our guidelines are obtuse, our application process onerous, or our program officers unresponsive, there is a good chance that we will never hear a word of criticism directly from those who are seeking money.

In writing for the Marguerite Casey Foundation, Tom David questions the concept of true "partnership" between grantors and grantees. First, it is foundation staff and trustees who are ultimately responsible for due diligence, for monitoring and evaluating grants, and who have the final call on the allocation of resources. Second, we can be perceived, right or wrong, as assuming to "know better" than a nonprofit does about how to run a program. Third, lines can become blurred when the same person has both a strong, involved hands-on role and also responsibility for monitoring a grant.

Some funders work with an intermediary to provide technical assistance or hire consultants to provide an outside look at their organizational effectiveness. This creates a kind of firewall between grant review and technical assistance or foundation evaluation and may encourage more honest feedback from grantees. If we get it, we need to be willing to listen and learn.

Stepping Up

The resources we have put us in a unique position to support and encourage positive change in our communities. But philanthropic institutions fulfill their missions through the nonprofits and individuals they support Finding ways to strengthen this relationship, while being mindful of the complicated power dynamic involved, can promote our ability to have a more far-reaching impact on the communities we care about than would be possible with financial resources alone.

Beth Feldman-Brandt is executive director, Stockton Rush Bartol Foundation.