Update From the Foundation


July 29, 2014

What can grantmakers do to better support our grant partners? This is a question that has been asked often within philanthropic circles. Research by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations and The Center for Effective Philanthropy provides some insights into how to FUND in ways that promote strong organizations and real change on the ground. We are struck by how simple some of the solutions can be, and how resistant the field of philanthropy is to making changes.

At Compton Foundation, we realize that it is relatively easy for us to control our grant process. We’ve made a lot of changes to it over the last few years, both how it works internally and what it looks like externally, and we thought we would use this post to update you on what we have done.  We write this very much in the spirit of transparency and to invite constructive critique, so please let us know if you have other ideas for us, or if some of our basic assumptions seem incorrect to you.

One of the fundamental assumptions underlying our process changes is that the most important characteristic of an effective grantmaking practice is building relationships (thank you, Whitman Institute!). We have attempted to decrease the paper exchange and wordsmithing work between us and to find ways to increase the dialogue and relationship building that will enable us to support the work in the most useful way possible.

1. Inquiry Process

Our inquiry form asks you two questions: 1) What do you want to do?, and 2) Why? The form only allows you a maximum of two short paragraphs.

We know you could tell us A LOT more about your work. We know there are other really important things to understand about what you do. We also can almost always tell, from those two paragraphs, whether your work is aligned enough with ours that we should dig a little deeper and learn more.

We currently receive over 500 inquiries each year. We try to read through them on a regular basis, investigate the ones that intrigue us, and invite full proposals from those we think will have the most resonance with our Board’s intent regarding our mission.

Responding in a timely fashion to even these short descriptions is challenging. We have two program staff, and our guidelines are quite broad right now. We’re working on both tightening up the guidelines to make more clear what would be the best match for our mission and moving more quickly through the inquiries once they are in the system.

Our rationale for the way we’ve structured the process is that this really brief form ensures that you don’t waste time tailoring an inquiry letter or writing a full application for us if we don’t see a way to move it with our trustees. At the end of the day, we fund fewer than 10% of the inquiries we receive. This process allows us to learn a little about your work and to better understand the ecosystem of work happening in our fields of concern.  We are also trying to minimize how much time it takes for you and to do more of the investigative work on our own: We can inquire about your work with partners, other funders, and key players in the same ecosystem. We can explore your website. We can set up a call or a meeting with you and/or your constituents to learn more. When we follow those links on our own, you aren’t spending a ton of time educating a potential funder who may or may not be able to get resources to you.

2. Proposals

We request proposals a month before we need them, with some flexibility in the deadline, and we’re happy to accept proposals that you’ve written for someone else. We don’t even mind if you don’t find and replace all of the references to the donor or foundation for which you actually wrote it. We just ask that you read the questions we ask in our own application, and respond to any that your existing proposal doesn’t address.

We try to have an answer back from our board within five weeks, or so, of when proposals are due. That gives us about a month to conduct due diligence and write up recommendations for our board, and allows our board members a week to review each slate of grants before they make final decisions. We do five or six grant dockets a year, each with about 12 – 15 recommendations, so that we can move money relatively quickly if necessary, or if an unexpected opportunity arises. While we don’t yet do multi-year funding, we have a number of renewal grants that we are likely to make in any one year, which limits the amount of additional grant dollars we can access, but we typically try to build some flexibility into our annual grants calendar.

3. Grants

If our board decides to make a grant, or declines your proposal, we let you know within two days. If it’s a yes, we’ll ask you to sign a grant agreement via email or fax, and then we’ll put the check in the mail. We’ll ask you to keep us informed about your work, and any major changes in the plan you’ve laid out, we’ll offer to serve as resources in any way we can as helpful to you

Approximately 60% of our grants are now general operating support, and we do fund convenings and cross issue dialogue and gatherings where relationship building is the primary outcome. Our reporting process is designed to be simple: sharing with us what you have learned, what successes you have had, challenges you have faced, and any intriguing information or artifacts generated in the year covered by the grant.

4. Saying No

Please see our past blog post http://www.comptonfoundation.org/updates/saying-no-is-hard-to-do-2/ about saying no. When we do have to say no, or stop funding an organization, we try to be as clear as possible, do so in a timely fashion, and keep the door open for continuing conversation.

We believe these changes represent a work in progress. What else should we consider changing to make sure that our process is efficient for you, enables resources to move in a way that best supports the reality of work happening on the ground, and addresses the realities of a foundation with a small staff? We are open to your thoughts and suggestions!

Ellen and Jen

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