How to Best Support Grantees

Tactical Philanthropy is currently covering the Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference with the help of a blog team. This is a guest post by Sushma Raman of Southern California Grantmakers.

By Sushma Raman

image Ask many nonprofit organizations about exemplary experiences they have had working with foundations and their answers may include some of the following: paperwork that is appropriate for the amount and type of support; foundation understanding of and empathy for our mission and strategy; directives that are appropriate for our organization’s size; and foundations themselves demonstrating the values they expect within nonprofits. As someone who has worked in both the nonprofit sector and philanthropy and who now heads a nonprofit regional philanthropic association, I understand the challenge of allocating and evaluating limited foundation dollars. How can foundations then best address the needs of the nonprofit sector, while remaining true to their core concerns around strategy, effectiveness, impact, and collaboration?

Luckily, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ conference gets to the heart of many of these thorny issues. The opening plenary session on empathy leading to better decision-making, the pre-session on reducing the paperwork burden on grantees, and a breakout on how to best support social movements all exemplify GEO’s commitment to helping philanthropy become more effective.

In my prior role as a foundation program officer, I managed a large and complex global initiative focused on building the capacity of foundations around the world. Built into the initiative was an evaluation plan that focused on the initiative itself. This formative evaluation process—built into the lifespan of the initiative—helped us to make course corrections and equally importantly, increased grantees’ confidence in, and trust of, the foundation’s efforts. Foundations such as The California Wellness Foundation have set an example by routinely seeking grantee feedback on their practices, policies, process and program staff. Others such as the Weingart Foundation immediately responded to the economic downturn in early 2009 by listening to grantees and addressing their concerns through providing general operating support.

Luckily for the philanthropic community, resources abound to enable grantmakers to more effectively communicate, collaborate, and support grantees. Groups like GuideStar and Project Streamline enable foundations to streamline paperwork and reporting requirements, while others like the Center for Effective Philanthropy facilitate grantee feedback. Regional associations and funder collaboratives enable foundations to connect on common issues of concern, share strategies for support and pool funds.

Thirty-five years ago, in the aftermath of the Tax Reform Act, a small group of foundations came together in Los Angeles to create the Los Angeles Inter-Foundation Center (now called Southern California Grantmakers). They articulated a need for foundations to better understand how to be effective and impactful grantmakers, as well as to better understand and influence the legislative environment. In many ways, the conversations we are having here at the GEO conference echo the issues discussed three to four decades ago regarding foundation effectiveness and accountability. As a community, we need to continue to connect, communicate and collaborate—and most importantly, listen—in order to increase our impact and effectiveness.


  1. Sushma,
    Thanks for your post. It saddens me to think that a nonprofit’s “exemplary” experience with a funder would include “paperwork that is appropriate for the amount and type of support; foundation understanding of and empathy for our mission and strategy; directives that are appropriate for our organization’s size; and foundations themselves demonstrating the values they expect within nonprofits.” That to me seems like the very least a nonprofit should expect from a funder.

    I would hope that “exemplary” means that the foundation has helped the nonprofit improve its organizational capacity, made introductions to influential leaders, identified other funders that the nonprofit could contact for support, identified opportunities that the nonprofit had previously been unaware of, shared best practices and models that the nonprofit could consider adapting, or otherwise used its knowledge, contacts, and access to help the nonprofit advance its mission. I agree that there are many fabulous resources in the field to help grantmakers best support the nonprofit sector. We are lucky to have organizations like Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, and thoughtful leaders such as yourself leading regional associations of grantmakers.

    –Kris Putnam-Walkerly
    Putnam Community Investment Consulting

  2. Sushma Raman says:

    Thanks, Kris for your response. Given that the majority of U.S. Foundations are not staffed, not all foundations view their role in this light. (individual foundations have differing views on support beyond the grant based upon their own missions and structure.)

    Many nonprofit organizations appreciate the leveraging of connections but don’t always find assistance that is more directive, to be terribly useful, given the power imbalance between funder and grantee.