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Strategic Philanthropy

Learning Journeys: What Funders Seek and What They Gain

By June 30, 2021October 8th, 2021No Comments

Deciding to deepen your learning on a new subject can feel daunting and overwhelming. Where do you start? How do you ensure you’re learning from the right sources? How can you hold yourself accountable for continuing to learn?

Throughout my time at TPI, I’ve worked with several funders who decided to embark on “learning journeys”. The exciting element for me has been that while each funder’s reasons for the journey and the questions they asked at the outset are unique and personal to each one, the process strengthens funders in universal, powerful ways.

Journeying to Understand the Needs of Grantee Partners Builds Deeper Relationships

For a few years, I’ve worked with a family seeking to understand their role in the greater philanthropic landscape, specifically supporting youth development. They recognized the power dynamics inherent in funder-grantee relationships, and they asked themselves: From our position as trustees of a family-run, mid-sized donor-advised fund, how can we help strengthen communities and make them more equitable and just? Some of their initial ideas focused on changes to things such as their pace of giving and how they build relationships with grantees.

Assessing their funding footprint as a first step, the donors asked key questions about the groups and organizations they fund in order to dig into inequities:

  • Are they led by community members and/or people of color?
  • Do they nurture leadership from within the organization?
  • How do they pay and support staff, youth leaders, and interns?
  • What is their board composition?
  • How might they encourage and make possible supportive, opt-in learning communities and sharing of resources across nonprofit groups with comparable missions or constituencies (e.g., social-emotional health supports for youth, transportation, facilities)?

As the trustees pursued a deeper level of understanding, putting time, energy, and care into their relationships with grantees, they in turn deepened these relationships. With TPI’s assistance, the trustees did a Learning Tour, setting up in-person meetings with grantee partners in the middle of the grant period. As funding already had been secured, these were informal conversations to understand the youth development ecosystem their grants supported. The donors wanted to push back against the “roll out the red carpet” feel of the stereotypical site visit, instead engaging in candid conversations while honoring and learning from the unique expertise each nonprofit leader held.

The timing of their journey turned out to be critical. The Learning Tour kicked off in Fall 2019; when COVID-19 hit the United States, adding many stressors to nonprofit operations, these donors had already deepened their grantee partner relationships. They understood what the key stressors on their partners would be and were comfortable enough to receive informal feedback on pressing needs – and to react quickly to those needs with emergency grants. The power within this approach was illuminated: the donors’ efforts to better understand their grantee partners holistically made them nimble funders in a crisis.

There are still challenges with having candid relationships, of course, and questions for funders to consider now include: How do we address any red flags that might emerge without damaging trust? What limits might be needed on how open we can be? These are among the questions that are leading the donors into their next stage of learning.

Journeying to Develop Philanthropic Skills Deepens Funder Capabilities into the Future

Another family foundation client of mine is currently ramping up their philanthropy capacity. Since they have six trustees new to the world of philanthropy, TPI’s work has centered on facilitating the learning process by identifying family values, creating a philanthropic strategy, and implementing grantmaking and governance practices. After a couple of years of TPI supporting their work, a trustee approached me with a desire to really dig into the philanthropic sector.

As a former educator, I love a good lesson plan. This was an opportunity to develop a curriculum specifically for this trustee, breaking down the various topics within philanthropy into manageable portions tailored to what she wanted to learn and how she learns best. As part of this curriculum, this trustee and I meet every other week to discuss the series of topics, and we have homework: reading articles, listening to webinars, etc. Our curriculum covers topics ranging from foundation governance to grantmaking logistics to the role of bias in grantmaking. It is an opportunity for us to explore the field, digest new information through informal conversation, and identify this trustee’s interest areas in grantmaking. Embarking on a learning journey through planned learning sessions helps this trustee develop the tools and insights she’ll need to lead the foundation’s work in the future. Having these sessions every other week also serves as an accountability tool to ensure the learning continues.

Journeying to Better Understand the Field through Learning Communities Deepens Connection

On a personal note, I have been on a learning journey of my own. Two years ago, I moved to North Carolina after six years in Boston. For me, a big part of setting down roots in a new place is understanding the history of where I live and connecting with community organizations and activism efforts. Over the summer of 2020, as Black Lives Matter took its place at the forefront of public discourse, there were even more opportunities to identify community leaders with whom I felt connected and whose work I might want to support. I set out to understand the full landscape of the area – and my work as a philanthropic advisor gave me a leg up on knowing how to get started. One of my biggest lessons was to find sources you trust and connect the dots. For me, this meant a fortuitous connection at an Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy (EPIP) conference with a program officer at a foundation in my region. My newfound Philanthropy Phriend (patent pending) recommended I check out a community action organization that advocates for local public schools; in turn, following the leaders of this organization led me to other great groups they partner with. As I continue on my own learning journey, centering relationships and trusting the leadership of those with lived experience have consistently led me in the right direction.

If you’re on a learning journey of your own, or feel ready to dive into one, the first steps are simple. Ask questions. Listen for the unsaid in conversations. Step back and question who is in the room… and who isn’t but should be. And when folks with lived experience in the issues you care about speak up, trust them and follow them.

(Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash)