Philanthropy is based on creating positive impact. Many funding organizations supply the leadership necessary to convene resources with need. Building diverse viewpoints into your design process for grant programs, impact investing, or collaborative partnerships is one essential way to align your intent and potential impact. So, how can you ensure you are getting the input you need?
Approach all feedback as a gift, especially when it surprises you.
While I was working as a communications director for a community foundation, the organization dedicated 18 months to examining our work as conveners in the community. Like many community foundations, a key part of our identity rested on being a community convener - a place where all could come together and support the causes they cared about and where community impact could be directed to the greatest need. The process included meeting regularly with a third-party trainer to help us understand our cultural competency.
The trainer conducted interviews with our closest “friends and family”: longtime donors, grantees, and fellow funders. The feedback we received was illuminating, especially in ways we least expected.
Turns out, we were not quite the convener we thought we were. Perceptions of our closest supporters was that we were an “ivory tower,” having a position of power and influence in the community that wasn’t open to everyone.
Our intentions were to be the community’s foundation, open to all. The reality was that we were supporting obstacles, both consciously and not, between the community and the resources dedicated to it.
Consider whether there are gaps in how you are reaching the communities you serve.
If you are exploring or currently hosting community convening sessions, how are you getting the word out within the community?
We hosted a series of sessions around a pilot neighborhood grant program. Residents named the need they wished to fund, like purchasing a communal lawnmower or repairing unsafe porch steps for seniors, and then applied together in small groups.
The residents did not know of our foundation or that we supported nonprofits they already knew and loved right there in their community.
We relied on partnerships with local city council persons and partnered with grantees in the area that served this community. They helped us design communications to their constituents - some of which included a knock on the door from a familiar face or handing out meeting information one by one.
I’d like to say all our efforts at being better conveners resulted in us figuratively high fiving each other and dismantled the perception of power and influence. It didn’t. At least not overnight.
Evaluate how you currently work with groups and design your programs.
The key is to keep re-designing how you convene. Each project, each group of folks you bring together to solve a problem will require its own adaptation. Building on the successes and failures of the last. Keep asking questions that check that privilege and power of influence and keep inviting folks in who may not typically have been included in the past.
Create a continuous feedback loop with your recipients.
One that offers a confidential and convenient-for-them avenue to provide you with input. Your grantee partners are great connections to the folks they serve: the people your grant support ultimately is working for. Are their voices (your grantees and their constituents) represented? If not, how can their perspectives and feedback become a dedicated part of the process?
The Center for Effective Philanthropy offers a grantee perception report that is confidential and convenient for your grantees to take part in. This could be a good place to begin getting a baseline for where you are versus where you think you are in your relationship with them.
If you have a scholarship review committee, are there former scholarship recipients included? These may be early career professionals now and would have good insight into the process (and potential barriers you’d like to know about) for applying.
Recognize the power of influence you bring to any convening.
Think of it as that elephant in the room, hunched in the corner, hard to ignore. The key to recognizing it is there and that it is certainly affecting all your convening work is asking how.
Being in the same room with a funder who is asking you to give them your thoughts on things, warts and all, can be great. But this power dynamic can influence their responses.
Before the president and CEO at our community foundation retired, we held listening sessions with longtime grantees of various organizational types, missions, and sizes. Our intent was to gather insight that would be helpful for the incoming president to know.
Despite setting a welcoming tone for feedback at the beginning of the sessions, good and bad, we largely received only positive comments. Sitting in a room with a funder asking for your thoughts over popcorn, the power dynamic is still very much in play.
Go to your stakeholders.
For our neighborhood grant program, we held sessions at the local public school and at a community center run with grant support from our foundation. The community center also supplied food and childcare service so that parents could bring their children to the sessions and not have to worry about grabbing dinner before or after.
We can always do better.
Sometimes we focus so much on the “better” we forget that it starts with “we.” It may feel great to hold up a sign inviting folks to “Join the Conversation” and call it a day. But having more voices as a fundamental part of designing how you convene creates a richer, deeper impact that aligns with your intent.