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Agile Philanthropy and the Pillars of SAFe

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work - brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.”

~Dr. Carol S. Dweck, Author and Psychology Professor at Stanford University

As a software company, Foundant Technologies follows Agile methodologies to develop features and products for our end users. Over the last year, we have adopted the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and recently began training across other, non-development, teams to utilize this method in all of our operations and cross-functional work. As we began exploring the concept of agile in all teams, I wondered: how does this mindset apply to philanthropy?

(Check out to learn more about a Lean-Agile Mindset)

SAFe or, Scaled Agile Framework, relies heavily on mindset awareness and openness to change. When I hear about clients advocating for change in their communities or pushing to allocate resources to underserved populations, I think of the mindset and openness to change that must inherently go into that work. And, I think of the Four Pillars of SAFe and their alignment with philanthropic work.

The Four Pillars of SAFe

Pillar 1 – Respect for People and Culture
The ultimate mission of philanthropic organizations is to better lives, culture, environment, and overall have a lasting impact on the world. 

The key with ‘Respect for People and Culture’ is to focus on doing the work but also the internal people at your organization. In family foundations specifically, this ties into the legacy of your founders and the culture they have handed down through generations. Also, as you bring professional staff into your organization, showing respect for those people and folding them into your way of doing it. Respect also means transparency with your grantees - letting them know of potential changes to your grant cycle or the reason for a question on your application. All of these people are key components of the work that will be done and need to be nurtured and respected in order to move forward.

Pillar 2 – Flow
Grantmakers are responsible for moving dollars out in a meaningful and efficient way. Some do this with responsive grantmaking, receiving proposals, assigning to review, and then making a decision. Others do this with proactive funding that may include a visit to an organization or connecting with others. At the end of the day, the goal is to get dollars out the door. But where might there be kinks in that process? 

One example is scheduling site visits with prospective grantees. You are not only trying to coordinate your calendar, but the calendar of board members, and applicants. This ends up taking a lot of effort, coordination, and negotiation and doesn’t flow. But what if at the beginning of the year you set site visit dates with the board? Now, all it takes is slotting in the partner to visit. This is an example of improving flow. Consider where you spend time on mundane tasks and see if there are ways to improve the flow and find the time to focus on mission-related work. 

Pillar 3 – Innovation
Literature around innovation encourages seeing and watching processes, so innovating from our desks cannot be an option. 

In our line of work, going and seeing how our clients use our products is the best way to learn what is and isn’t working. The same goes for grantmakers. “Go See” what is happening in the communities you serve, or at the organizations you partner with. You may be hearing that the after school program is going great and students are thriving but maybe if you “Go See” you will notice the people running the program don’t have the equipment or resources to do their job to the fullest. Maybe they would never ask for papers and highlighters but by going and seeing you can help innovate on how to make a greater impact with that partner. 

Of course, in the wake of COVID-19 and ongoing uncertainty, in-person site visits are not an option. How can you innovate to “Go See” what’s happening now? Is this Facetime or Zoom with an applicant in their “new normal” so you can see what they are up against? Could you have them give you a video walk-through of their day-in-the-life?

Learning to innovate is our new normal. Embracing it, having fun with it, and using it to be even more effective will ultimately move all of philanthropy forward.

Pillar 4 – Relentless Improvement
How do we get better? Through relentless improvement. At Foundant there are a couple of tools we use for Relentless Improvement. Every two weeks we meet and check in on what is working and what is not working. This falls into our Plan, Do, Check, Adjust flow. It builds in feedback frequently and consistently. 
After every grant cycle do you request feedback? Maybe it’s feedback from your grantees: How long did the application take you to complete? Were our questions clear? Or feedback from other stakeholders: Did you have the information you needed to effectively make decisions? Were there pieces of the process, or information that was not helpful to you? Then, action the feedback and do it all over again. 


While not an exhaustive list of examples, I hope this context helps you consider how you might apply the four pillars of SAFe to your organization and/or processes. Maybe these are things you have already been doing but now you have a common language to share across your team or with your external stakeholders. However you make the connection, thinking about lean and agile in the work you do will make your day to day more fun and leave room for things that help drive your mission forward. 


Trust and Transparency Through an Agile Mindset: Part 1 Trust and Transparency Through an Agile Mindset: Part 2 Trust and Transparency Through an Agile Mindset: Part 3

About the Author

In her time with Foundant (since 2011) Sammie Holzwarth has taken on many roles in her path to becoming the Product Manager of Grants & Scholarships. Starting as an intern with Foundant’s Marketing Team, Sammie then moved into a Client Success Manager role - successfully implementing well over 150 clients. Her Foundant adventure next took her to the Sales Team as Foundant’s GLM/SLM Product Implementation Engineer. Her breadth of knowledge and extensive experience working with a plethora of clients and in varying roles at Foundant fuels her passion and excitement to continually improve GLM/SLM, and herself which she now brings to her role as the Product Manager for Grants and Scholarships! Sammie has a passion for youth philanthropy and has spearheaded the Youth Giving Project in Bozeman, MT as well as serving as an Exponent Philanthropy Next Gen Fellow for 2016. Montana holds a special place in Sammie’s heart as she is a born and raised Montanan; from rolling plains to mountain tops, this is where she feels most at home and takes every opportunity to soak in the outdoors. When traveling beyond the Big Sky State, Sammie loves anywhere with a vibrant culture, and delicious food. Connect with Sammie directly at or on twitter @SammieHolzwarth.

Profile Photo of Sammie Holzwarth