What can philanthropy learn from this year’s Final Four?


Basketball and hoopI will get my bias out in the first sentence – I live in a suburb of Syracuse, NY. I tell you this so you understand why basketball is on my mind. With both the men and women’s teams having been in this year’s Final Four, basketball still dominates much of the conversation in our town even though both of our lacrosse teams are finding success this spring. As I listen to those that know a lot more about basketball than me talk and dissect each game, each play, each strategy – I can’t help but think about how the lessons from this year’s Final Four relate to my work in philanthropy as the Executive Director of the NY Funders Alliance, one of the thirty-three regional associations in the country.

Changing course in the 2nd half may be critical to success.

There was no better example of this in the tournament than the Syracuse vs. Virginia game. With ten minutes left on the clock, the Orange changed the game plan. They pressed the Cavaliers, they sped up the pace of the game, their three-point shooter drove to the basket – they corrected course in the middle of the game recognizing that if they didn’t, they wouldn’t be using the gold scissors to cut down the nets.

In philanthropy, we don’t always change course quick enough. I talk to countless foundation and nonprofit leaders who share stories that start with, “we saw the signs, but stayed the course until it was too late.” While it is true in our line of work it can take years to see the real outcomes we desire – whether it is changing the obesity rates of kids, funding a mentoring program that aims to change the graduation rates, or funding advocacy organizations that aim to keep our water clean and our air fresh – we need to be better at taking a time-out, collecting the facts, and changing course if needed. We also need to be more frank with our grantees that we are more interested in getting the right outcomes, even if it means we have to stop, admit our plan wasn’t the best course of action, and change what and how we fund a program or project.

Sometimes the team that looks best on paper isn’t always the team you should bet on.

If you filled out a bracket, participated in the office pool, or headed to Vegas to bet on March Madness this year you most likely are shaking your head trying to understand where you went wrong. As it is most years, the upsets cause havoc on people’s ability to keep their brackets intact. It is nearly impossible for a person or persons to know so much about every team, every match up, that they pick all the winners.

How many times have you read a grant proposal and thought, “this organization has it all figured out, the numbers add up, they are in the right neighborhood, this is the organization to invest in,” only to find out it was all smoke and mirrors? In the same vein, how many smaller, nimbler organizations have applied for funding that you didn’t believe could accomplish what they said they could do? You didn’t take the time for a site-visit to their organization, you don’t know their leader, their board members, their staffs, and yet, you made a judgement solely based on the sheet of paper in front of you. Maybe funding the smaller, riskier agency is the smartest bet.

We do it for the love of the “game.”

All of the hours dedicated to their craft, the missed classes, the grueling travel schedules that our student athletes keep so that maybe they can wear the hat, don the t-shirt, and declare that they are the NCAA champions is remarkable. True, they are in privileged positions, most of them, since they get to attend some of the best colleges in the country and some receive full scholarships, but they also love the game.

Foundation staff leaders – CEOs, program officers, etc. – need to be in the business because they love the work. As easy as some think it is to “give away” money, anyone who has been a grantmaker knows it is difficult. To know that you are stewarding someone’s legacy in the appropriate manner, that the money is being used for the intended purpose, and that it achieves the best outcome can be extremely challenging. Foundation leaders need to build strong partnerships with business and government leaders, they must convene various parties to leverage their dollars in the most strategic and effective manner, and they know that they cannot force their agenda onto key stakeholders.

Grantmaking is an art, not a science. Many of my colleagues put in numerous hours, attend late meetings, travel extensively to build the relationships and the networks they need to see the change they are working toward. Good grantmakers get out from behind their desk and “do.” The days of simply writing a check in philanthropy are over, so to be good at this work you must put in the time, energy, and willingness to make sacrifices that you didn’t necessarily anticipate when you took this privileged job. To wake up and do this work well every day takes love, courage, and vision. It takes heart and sacrifice.

It certainly was a wild tournament. For the teams that didn’t make the tournament or have been eliminated, they will take what they learned from this season and this tournament and begin working to have better results for next season. For grantmakers, we too will take what we learned from this year’s grant cycle and try to be more effective, more efficient, and hone our craft. For while basketball is great entertainment that creates a lot of joy, grant making changes lives and communities.

About the Author

Lisa Fasolo Frishman

Lisa Fasolo Frishman is the Executive Director of the NY Funders Alliance, which is one of two regional associations in New York State that supports the educational and professional development of grantmakers. Prior to her current role, Lisa held various positions in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. Most recently, Lisa worked at the Maxwell School for Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University. Lisa is a graduate of the Citizen’s Academy through FOCUS Greater Syracuse, Leadership Denver, and is the 2016 Community Trustee Individual Award winner for Leadership Greater Syracuse. She holds a Masters of Social Science from the University of Colorado, and Bachelors of Arts in History from William Smith College in Geneva, NY.

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