Developing personal relationships with grantees takes time and effort, just as it does to develop any relationship. It is therefore essential to begin this process by determining, realistically, how many focus areas and how many grantees with which you have the time to work effectively. In our experience, the smaller the foundation, the narrower the focus needs to be.

Once you’ve defined each focus, start your grantmaking by investing in a large pool of grantees in each focus area. Then, over time, select those with whom you’ll work for the long term. By initially working with multiple grantees in each of our focus areas, we were able to get to know the grantees — learning about their capacity to execute on their missions, their knowledge and relationships, their experience, and their leadership. Over time, we narrowed the focus to fewer grantees as projects and opportunities became more identifiable.

What is critical in this phase is demonstrating that the foundation is genuinely interested in learning from grantees and working with them. This requires an attitude of humility, expressed through actions and processes that demonstrate understanding and consideration of a grantee’s circumstances, needs, and capabilities. Remember, the grantee also has to select you as a partner they can trust.

After we listened to and learned from our grantees to identify specific areas of need and opportunity in their fields, we worked with them over time to develop longer-term projects. In this phase, we thought of our grantees as partners and treated them as such.

Our foundation has three focus areas in our city: 1) the multiple cultural organizations in Balboa Park, “the jewel of San Diego”; 2) the research and innovation sector of San Diego; and 3) the health, education, and welfare of residents of the Diamond Neighborhoods, a disadvantaged area of San Diego. In each of these focus areas, our strong relationships led to grantee-initiated funding opportunities that were not part of our grant cycle but were important to our grantees’ and our shared goals.

Read the full article about building strong relationships by Peter Ellsworth and Emily Young at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.