Face Plants: Who Knows More?
By Carrie Avery
President, The Durfee Foundation
Editor’s Note: We’re back with another installment in our Face Plants series, where we explore funder mistakes and lessons learned. We’re delighted to be featuring a guest contributor, Carrie Avery. Carrie is president of The Durfee Foundationin Los Angeles, which focuses on leadership by providing fellowships, grants to new grassroots organizations with dynamic leadership, and sabbaticals to longtime nonprofit leaders. This piece is adapted from the original “Philanthropy Lessons: Who Knows More” published to Exponent Philanthropy’s blog.
The Durfee Foundation has a long-standing practice of seeking the expertise of our grantees and the community when designing our grant programs. When we do this we learn whether ideas that may sound brilliant to our engaged board and small staff might actually be duds from the point of view of the nonprofit community we support.
I received an excellent lesson in humility a few years ago.
I was excited when a colleague told me about her idea for a grant program to help retiring baby boomer executive directors of nonprofits transition out of their roles and into consulting positions at other nonprofits. I thought this was genius. Not only did it address an issue that funders have been discussing for a long time—the need to smooth the transition of outgoing EDs and pave the way for new talent—but it provided wise counsel to mid-sized nonprofits in need of senior staff. Thinking that this was a program that Durfee could launch, I presented it to my board. They shared my enthusiasm and signed off on planning funding.
To test the idea, Durfee brought together 13 esteemed nonprofit leaders for a lunchtime focus group discussion in downtown Los Angeles. Our meeting facilitator laid out the program design, and we went around the room to get reactions.
No one liked it. A few people tried to be polite and say that they saw some possibilities, but the overwhelming response was that the program was too structured and did not allow for the many nuanced considerations of retirement.
Our skilled facilitator turned it into a more wide-ranging discussion about the issues facing executive directors when considering retirement—financial, organizational, societal, personal—and how those might be addressed. We didn’t arrive at any tidy answers in those two and a half hours, but we learned first-hand that this is a complex issue that required a lot more work on our part before we jumped into it. We have continued that work in partnership with nonprofits and other funders.
The big takeaway for me was that if Durfee had launched this program without checking in as we did, we still would have gotten applications. During the lunch, I could see the EDs struggling to figure out how they could make this program work for them. Sadly, they have a lot of practice trying to fit their organizational needs into the often rigid requirements of well-meaning grant programs.
Here are some tips for maximizing the impact of your grants by getting authentic input.
Be aware of the power dynamic. It’s not easy to get honest feedback from people who are keenly aware that you have the power to give or withhold money. Acknowledge this and do what you can to diminish it, such as by heeding to the point below.
Create an environment of trust and respect. Don’t tell people that you want feedback if what you are really seeking is applause. Approach them with true respect for their deep field knowledge, listen, take notes, and take action based on what they say.
Talk to your constituents regularly to learn what they really need. We are fortunate at Durfee that we have a group of nonprofit leaders we have supported over the years that we can turn to for honest feedback. Durfee hosts regular retreats for these leaders where we can learn what is on their minds and what they really need from funders.
Stay open-minded; don’t get too wedded to your own ideas. In retrospect, it would have been a lot better if we had simply asked, “We’ve been thinking about the wave of baby boomer ED retirements and wondering how a funder can be helpful. We’d love to hear your ideas. What are they?”
Listening deeply to the people in the community who are closest to the issues we care about is the most important work that a funder can do to ensure that its resources are put to their best use.