02 Nov, 2023
November 2, 2023
Estimated Read Time: 15 minutes
When the Rogers Family Foundation (RFF) announced the sunsetting of its Oakland education strategy in October 2020, the team knew there would be a point of reflection on the last two decades of grantmaking. This piece shares my reflections as the Foundation’s Entrepreneur in Residence leading the Leadership and Sustainability Initiative. At the outset of 2021, I joined the team bringing my leadership skills, existing relationships, and deep love for Oakland to bear as the Foundation doubled down on building the capacity of its grantees.
“When should a funder start engaging in Beyond The Grant support? Now. Today. Yesterday. The time is always right to be in service to and solidarity with grantees.”
– Rhonnel Sotelo, Chief Executive Officer
As a long time grantee, I knew that Beyond the Grant support2 had been in the DNA of the Rogers Family Foundation (RFF), since its beginning. From RFF’s earliest days, founding CEO Brian Rogers had created a culture of assisting grantees not just with grants, but with time and talent as well. As a founder of Lighthouse Community Public Schools, an organization that benefited for years from RFF giving, I palpably experienced that the real work of this Foundation was in the community and not behind a desk. RFF was completely in a league of its own as a funder – the magnitude of the support far surpassed all expectations. The Foundation’s actions resulted not only in the building of two school facilities, but in a friendship where I could share real leadership dilemmas without fear of judgment, or worse: less funding. I knew, because of RFF’s commitment to trust, that I would be held to high expectations and supported to find creative solutions. I can confidently point to the Beyond the Grant support that we received as one of the key drivers of Lighthouse’s success. So when I had the opportunity to join the team and be deployed with the sole purpose of providing Beyond the Grant support to RFF grantees, the bar had been set.
What Brian, and the whole team at RFF, had embraced from the beginning were the practices of Trust-Based Philanthropy (TBP). These practices, when implemented well, set foundations on a course to build deeper, more trusting relationships with its grantees, serving to balance the power between funder and grantseeker. The sixth practice of TBP – providing support beyond the check – would be my entire focus as the Foundation began the journey toward its spend down. My three-year mission, in collaboration with the entire RFF team, was to strengthen grantees by building and extending their capacity. We would actively listen to grantees, learn where they felt stuck, and put the puzzle pieces together on how best to support grantees’ ability to succeed on behalf of Oakland students. We would bring to life the TBP notion that “responsive, adaptive, non-monetary support can bolster leadership, capacity, and organizational health.” We were committed to responding to the fact that, “This is especially critical for organizations that have historically gone without the same level of networks or support than their more established peers.”3
Beyond the Grant (BTG) efforts are only as strong as the trust shared between foundations and grantees. A nonprofit leader will hesitate to divulge their woes and troubles to a funder unless persistent, intentional, and compassionate efforts have been made to break down the power dynamic that often exists between them. Building these strong relationships requires meeting grantees where they are and not foisting any agenda upon them, deeply listening, and understanding and honoring that they are the experts in determining what they need. Brian modeled that intentional breakdown of power dynamics for me for decades as a funder, board member, coach, and ally, so it was natural to bring that into my work supporting our grantees.
There are many approaches to providing BTG support. I’ve captured examples and lessons I’ve learned during my time at RFF with the hope that foundation peers will use them to get started or to strengthen their own Beyond the Grant efforts. Even better, we hope our BTG stories find their way into the hands of grantees who can encourage and cajole their funders into recognizing that they can be impactful in other ways.
A main theme throughout all of these examples is a focus on relationships, trust, and transparency. Beyond the Grant work, for us, has a singular purpose: adding to the capacity, strength, and resilience that already exists in the organizations we fund. While the Foundation has delivered Beyond the Grant support across the entire team for nearly two decades, the team realized – in hindsight – that my position and the intensity of the team’s efforts could’ve been established well before the spend down. “When should a funder start engaging in Beyond The Grant support?” pondered RFF CEO Rhonnel Sotelo. “Now. Today. Yesterday. The time is always right to be in service to and solidarity with grantees.”
The possibilities of providing Beyond the Grant support are endless, especially when the culture of your whole team is rooted in building relationships beyond the transactional. Because Trust Based Philanthropy is so fundamental at RFF, every member of the team has offered and provided assistance beyond the check in some way.4
Beyond the Grant support from a foundation can be likened to a metaphor of the human body: each part of the body serves a critical purpose, each part working in harmony with the others.
Let’s look at each piece of the anatomy and some real life examples.
Head: Each RFF team member is encouraged to offer their unique skills, perspective, and advice to grantees, with the assumption that it makes sense for both grantee and the Foundation team member. BTG has to be based on what the grantee has asked for, not what you think they need. As you get started in your context, start with the question, “What talents and skills exist within your full foundation team and how can you make those talents available to your grantees?”
At RFF, many team members have offered expertise and insights by holding seats on grantees’ Boards of Directors at the grantee’s request. At the same time, team members learn and bolster their own knowledge about the schools and nonprofits we fund, while contributing guidance and support of an organization’s governance. Brian’s presence on the Lighthouse Board was invaluable for many years. A number of my Beyond the Grant engagements have been with schools where our team holds Board positions and have nuanced insight into how we can maximize support. I have found myself advising development teams, writing grant proposals, and in one instance, helping to manage and coordinate a school merger. Through these experiences, we’ve learned that BTG work benefits grantee and funder alike.
As a leadership coach and former school leader, I’ve found myself responding to grantee needs in numerous ways, serving as a consultant to carry out work our grantees might not have otherwise been able to afford. For example, when one of our grantees needed a new strategic plan to chart its course for the post-pandemic future, I led their leadership team and advisors through a multi-month strategic planning process. After the plan was in place, I helped the leadership team put new structures in place to ensure the plan was on track (nothing worse than a strategic plan ignored!). We met biweekly to troubleshoot the work toward meeting their goals and objectives. These meetings also provided a space for the organization’s leadership team to learn new skills and reflect on their successes and challenges.
Ears: Deep listening is essential to fostering effective BTG support. Listening to a grantee and being authentically curious about their needs effectively fosters trust. No one knows the issues facing a grantee better than the grantee themselves. Sometimes, listening also requires reading a bit between the lines to get to the root of a need. One of the reasons why our team so successfully delivers BTG support can be attributed to all of them being great listeners.
When the new CEO of one of our grantees asked for help revising their bylaws, this indicated to me that the board might need to hit the reset button on its culture and commitment as they ushered in a new era of governance. As requested, I facilitated a process to revise the bylaws, but also facilitated a retreat to realign the board around the organization’s mission and reestablish clarity of the relationship between CEO and board members. I helped manage board expectations of the CEO and created more predictability by establishing a board calendar. That work, which would’ve been impossible without an established relationship built on trust, happened because I was listening for needs beyond the technical ask.
Hands: Sometimes, grantees just need help with the lifting. At RFF, we’ve deployed our talents and expertise to do just that. This help comes in so many forms, from the simple, like rallying our team for a school clean-up day or showing up to help for a grantee’s big event; to the complex, like annually taking, placing, and fulfilling orders for college sweatshirts for an entire school’s graduating class, developing funding proposals, designing strategic communications plans, or providing coaching to key leadership staff. Across our team, we’re willing to roll up our sleeves and do what needs to be done.
One of our grantees needed a website redesign, but their small-but-mighty leadership team was already spread thin as they were in the middle of rolling out their new program offerings. Because of the trusting relationship between RFF’s Program Associate Kate Ray and the grantee’s communications director, Kate offered to do some of the technical work on the website, reformatting sections of the site, providing feedback on newly drafted pages, and bringing the vision for the redesign to life. The grantee was perfectly capable of doing this work, but Kate’s efforts freed the grantee to focus on mission-critical projects.
Many of our grantees have leaders that often go years without performance reviews due to competing board priorities. In these cases, I’ve provided technical assistance by deploying and customizing an online 360-review tool that engages stakeholders and results in an actionable coaching and development plan for the leader. In some cases, I have coached leaders directly; other times, we have provided funds to connect leaders with external coaches suited to their needs, preferences, and roles.
Mouth: Serving as your grantee’s hype person is a highly valued BTG support among grantees. Foundations can have a large audience of social media followers and/or newsletter subscribers, so featuring the good work of your grantees through these channels provides them with greater visibility. Additionally, sharing grantee work acts as an endorsement from one funder to another and to the field at large. The ability to amplify grantee voices, create shared spaces, and bring our fields of interest together are things that many funders do well.
The RFF Communications Team has woven this hype-person practice into their standard operations. The team publishes a Shout Out of grantees, distributed to thousands of subscribers through email blasts and social media posts. These articles are often reposted and shared by grantees as well as others working in the field. They shine a light on grantees’ accomplishments, leadership, and good work.
Additionally, we work to bust silos between organizations and create ways for our grantees to talk to each other. At their request, Sara Levine, RFF Senior Program Officer, convened leaders in a series of meetings to share stories, understand each others’ work, and create opportunities for collaboration. Sara hosted and facilitated these gatherings in the RFF meeting space and provided meals to attendees – meaningful gestures that go a long way. As a result, new connections and lasting relationships were forged and these leaders now help propel each other in their work. For example, two once-siloed organizations hosted a summer event for Black teachers that gave them the opportunity to explore, have fun, and consider how they could bring play into their own classrooms.
Heart – The most critical part of the anatomy is the heart, the place where trust originates. As funders, we must start with deep empathy for our grantees and believe that they know best when it comes to their organizations’ and field’s needs. We have to put ourselves in their shoes and get as familiar as possible with the challenges they face. We must seek to understand, be consistent in showing up, and follow through on our commitments. We have to remind our grantees that their honesty and candor are welcomed, again and again – not only about what they need, but also about what we can do better to support them.
This is no easy feat. RFF often works with many new leaders who are one-person shops and typically very entrepreneurial by nature. It can be challenging for them to ask for help when they are trying to run all the aspects of an organization while working to make a quantifiable impact. To even be able to accept BTG support, leaders are required to slow down in an extremely fast-paced environment to take time to explain their visions and intentions in order to delegate to others. The RFF team – hyper-aware of funder/grantee power dynamics at play – has become accustomed to setting intentional “safe space” meetings just to uncover needs where we can support our grantees. The usual questions at these meetings are, “What can we take off of your plate this week/month?, “Where do you feel stuck and how can we help with that?, or “If you could clone yourself, what would you delegate to your clone?” These consistent questions, along with stating and restating our intentions to offer BTG support, have been crucial to leading with our hearts by breaking down power dynamics and maintaining trust.
When I first joined the Foundation, I established trusting relationships with grantees by having in-depth, two-way conversations that allowed them to “get real” about their strengths and what kept them up at night, creating the conditions for them to ask for what they truly needed. And while I didn’t presume to fully understand their context, I shared that I had recently been in their shoes as a grantee, empathizing with their wins and dilemmas.
It was from these conversations that we established three major pathways of BTG support that our grantees were offered and could access:
Had it not been for the honesty and vulnerability that our grantees afforded us, these pathways might not have been as obvious. I have found that connecting with the hearts of grantees is work that must be evergreen in order for Beyond the Grant work to succeed.
“We imagine that the world would be in a far healthier place if more foundations operated with intellect, heart, and ‘roll-up-our-sleeve-ness’.”
– Rogers Family Foundation Grantee
Having the opportunity to join and amplify the work of the passionate and talented RFF team has been deeply rewarding. Being in the position to support so many passionate and capable people who put in good work for Oakland students and families has been an extraordinary experience. I have learned things about myself and pushed the limits of what I can do to support amazing leaders and organizations. I hope for the opportunity to continue doing Beyond the Grant work in foundations for years to come.
Reflecting on my experience over the past three years, coupled with the anatomy of a supportive Beyond the Grant relationship, here are a few observations and lessons to consider:
To those who still might not be believers in the power of Beyond the Grant support or who might be asking “Why not just give them more money?” we offer the following wisdom from a grantee:
“As we operate in a national culture, climate, and system that encourages relationships that are limited to transactions and rarely transformation, we are beyond grateful for the true friendships and partnerships that we’ve developed… [I]ndividuals [at the foundation] have been so generous in sharing their wisdoms, technical skills, and time to make our work not only functional, but meaningful and fun! We imagine that the world would be in a far healthier place if more foundations operated with intellect, heart, and ‘roll-up-our-sleeve-ness’.”
The dollars that your foundation provides are already making a difference in the world. Supercharge that value by also providing what a check can’t. It will pay dividends for years to come.