Grantmaking for the 21st Century: Reflections from the New Grantmakers Institute

This fall I attended Northern California Grantmakers’ New Grantmakers Institute: Grantmaking for the 21st Century, a training for all who believe philanthropy can be a powerful lever for social change.”  This year’s Institute was hosted at the beautiful downtown San Francisco offices of The James Irvine Foundation. At just around 50 attendees, and held over two days in September and then a one day reconvening in October, the group really got to know one another and spoke honestly and openly to explore issues faced by grantmakers. 
Trust-based grantmaking: With the overarching themes of social justice and equity, the three days offered great exposure to many exciting concepts and key players in the world of philanthropy. We were led through thought provoking exercises and discussions by faculty that included Pia Infante of The Whitman Institute, Julia Wilson of OneJustice, and Dana Kowaoka-Chen of Bay Area Justice Funders Network. Throughout many of the sessions, the topic of the inherent power imbalance between grantor and grantee was brought to light. We had a chance to discuss in small groups questions like, “Are there ways in which our grant applications place an undue burden on grantees?” and “Do we ask for reports that are not fully utilized when received?” 
In The Good and the Bad of Funder-Nonprofit Relationships session we met with a panel of leadership from Family Story Project, Blue Sky Funders Forum, and Chinese Progressive Association. This afforded us the opportunity to listen to a frank discussion from the grantee perspective, covering topics from useful site visits to what makes a good long-term grantmaking relationship. Clarity and transparency were of utmost importance to the nonprofit professionals. They asked that funders make expectations clear before site visits, for example. Who should be present? What is the intended outcome? How long should the visit last? They also stressed the value of timely follow up and honest feedback from funders. 
Throughout this session and the entire institute, conversation returned to the same bottom line: when an open, trust-based relationship is established between grantor and grantee, the best work can be done. This can be as a simple as a phone call to a grantee to ask, “What are you struggling with right now?”
Real Cost of Philanthropy: Another common thread throughout the trainings was the real cost of philanthropy. This has been a hot topic in philanthropy for quite some time, sparked by Dan Pallotta’s now-famous TED Talk and projects like The Overhead Myth, which challenge the belief that “overhead ratio” (or, the expectation that overhead costs remain as low as 25%) is a valid indicator of nonprofit performance. Real Cost is a movement to shift beyond the overhead discussion and create a holistic approach to grantmaking. The goal is to support grantmakers in developing an assessment of the actual costs associated with delivering outcomes through nonprofit programming, and thus informing their funding decisions. In doing so, nonprofits can be elevated to a place where they can thrive, achieve greater impact and outcomes from their programs, and ultimately drive real change. 
During a session led by David Greco of Social Sector Partners, we were able to put theory into action when we were led through the financial assessment of a struggling nonprofit, and worked through their audited financial statements to determine the true funding the organization would need to be sustainable and thus deliver on a programmatic funding request. The numbers were quite staggering!  The Real Cost Project is a joint statewide initiative by Northern California Grantmakers, San Diego Grantmakers and Southern California Grantmakers to increase philanthropy's impact across California. Learn more about it here
Developing deeper, more meaningful relationships with grantees and empowering them to achieve their best is exciting to me, and I left each day of the New Grantmakers Institute inspired to support our corporate partners in this important work.  Please feel free to share your experiences with me on Twitter @katdrabeck or via LinkedIn
For more information on how Silicon Valley Community Foundation supports strategic grantmaking, or for other corporate responsibility questions, please contact