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Helping Funders to Stay Connected to The Community


For many funders – donors, family foundations, and other grantmakers – it is a challenge to be truly connected to the communities they wish to support. The day-to-day lived experiences of those in need of aid, support, chances to achieve, or justice are typically not shared by those who make the funding decisions. Those with the power and resources often lack an understanding of the complexity of the issues faced by their communities. It is a disconnect that has led over the years to many problems and missed opportunities.


But things are changing. Funders of all types are being strongly encouraged to explore this topic and to identify ways they can build authentic and sustained connections with the nonprofits they support philanthropically. Funders are now intentionally creating ways through which these organizations can share their stories, enabling staff and board members to learn – and to appreciate – the real-time needs of their community.


Here are a few suggestions – based on what I have seen work in various settings – that can help funders to know more and to foster real connections with the beneficiaries of their philanthropy.


Board Member “Field Trips”

Once or twice each year (or more if schedules permit) take your entire board on a “field trip” and go visit one of your grantee partners. Work with the organization in advance to identify what might be the best opportunity through which you can really see what the nonprofit is working on. Such trips do not necessarily have to be part of the evaluation process; they can be part of your ongoing relationship building. Keep the visit’s agenda simple to make it easy for the nonprofit, but be clear if there are specific things you want to see or team members you wish to meet. Such visits can be very educational and inspirational, and your board members will look forward to them each time.


Day of Service

For families and family foundations who have members spread across different regions, a “Day of Service” can be a great way to connect to a particular cause as well as to create a meaningful shared experience for all. Pick an issue (and a specific time frame) and identify ways that all family members can do something together that makes an impact on that issue during the designated time. For example, if the issue is food insecurity, family members can be encouraged to volunteer at their local food pantry or participate in a CROP Hunger Walk during the month of October. Encourage families to involve all members (children, grandparents, spouses, etc.) and have them take pictures of their participation which can then be shared on social media. At future family gatherings, people can share stories of their activities, who they met, and what they learned.


Mission Moments

At the beginning of any foundation board meeting, take a few minutes to get grounded and to connect everyone to work you’re making possible. Collect photos and stories from grantee partners and share them with each other. Have program officers share special highlights or achievements of specific grantees, such as awards they might have received or recent successful events. Get creative and make it engaging for your board members. For example, collect the logos of all your grantees and see how many of them your board members can recognize. (I did this with a client recently, and it was a lot of fun.) With Zoom, Teams, etc., it is now possible to have representatives from your grantee partners speak to the board in real-time, which can be a useful way to hear stories about the important work they are doing. Regardless of the method, putting organizations “front and center” enables you to relate everything you do at board meetings back to these organizations, keeping you focused on your mission.


Partner Convenings

It is valuable for any funder to routinely gather feedback and perspective from grantee partners. Many foundations are now regularly convening the nonprofits they support to learn more about issues they’re facing, critical topics of interest to their constituents, and areas of unmet needs. As you undertake such gatherings, assure your grantees that their participation is totally optional and that these meetings are not part of the grant evaluation process. Be conscientious of their time by keeping these convenings to 90 minutes or less, and provide lunch/refreshments for participants, knowing they are taking time away from their work. Such meetings can be centered around issues, neighborhoods, or types of organizations, etc., and you can invite CEO/EDs, senior program staff, or even board leaders. It is also useful to consider having such convenings led by an outside facilitator. I recently helped to facilitate such a meeting for a client, and the participants were deeply grateful for the opportunity to share their thoughts in this type of setting.


 

These are just a few ways that funders and donors can connect themselves to their community. Invariably there is always great and useful learning that happens when you explore new approaches and ideas. Make sure to take the time to evaluate any of these tactics you might choose to follow, gathering (and sharing) data, reactions, perspectives, etc. The impact can be felt in a variety of ways – changes in giving strategies, deeper involvement by family members, new grant programs, and more.

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