Giving Compass' Take:

• Writing for the Center of Effective Philanthropy, the Sister Fund's Helen LaKelly Hunt describes her organization's approach to "relational philanthropy," which emphasizes more collaboration with grantees.

• Could the Sister Fund's methods work for you? Hunt lists ways in which funders can develop similar strategies, with the benefits being stronger connections with constituents and a more transparent, inclusive culture.

• Learn why listening is essential to grantmaking.

What if the beneficiaries of the hardworking organizations that foundations serve were represented among foundation leadership? For a decade, the Sister Fund adopted this model into its staffing and governance practices, and the unique expertise of grantees and the communities we seek to help continue to meaningfully influence our grantmaking.

In 1982, when I decided to become more strategic with my philanthropy, the first thing I did was gather the annual reports of foundations from around the country so I could study how others were carrying out their giving. As I read through the reports, I noticed that the boards of these foundations were primarily white males. Many of these men were credentialed and considered experts in their respective fields. All of the nonprofits and people their work served, on the other hand, were framed as “needy” organizations and populations.

I realized this was the standard model of philanthropy at that time. While greatly appreciating the caring work of those board members, I wondered whether beneficiaries would want to have a voice at the decision-making table — and whether inviting their participation would enrich the entire grantmaking process.

As my research continued, I noticed that the annual report of one funder, in particular, was different than the others: the San Francisco Women’s Foundation (now the Women’s Foundation of California). As I reviewed the foundation’s report, I learned that not only were women on their board of directors, but these women were also of diverse social, cultural, and economic backgrounds. The foundation’s board represented the population it served. I knew immediately that I wanted my foundation to be like that.

With this model in mind, in 1988 I started the Sister Fund, which is committed to funding the work of organizations benefitting marginalized women of color. I invited grantee partners and frontline community members of the organizations we funded to serve in an advisory capacity on a newly formed group called our Activist Board. This board complemented our formal Board of Directors, which has the legal authority to allocate funding. The Activist Board members worked closely with our staff to develop our grants portfolio and make grantmaking decisions.

We learned a few things that may be helpful to other funders:

  • Set clear expectations from the beginning, including open, ongoing conversations and transparency about your funding intentions.
  • If you wish to invite grantees or people you seek to help onto a formal or informal advisory board, set clear term limits, roles, and responsibilities. From the outset, consider setting shorter-term limits as you experiment with the model.
  • Secure the help of an external philanthropic adviser or consultant who can guide the process. Do your research (read those annual reports!), seek out other models that inspire you, and begin working with the right grantees ― organizations that you know well, and those with a solid reputation in the field.

Read the full article about grantmaking that fosters more collaboration by Helen LaKelly Hunt at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.