Our experiences at the Ford Foundation point to the benefits and challenges of learning by doing.

As we’ve looked within, we have focused on improving and amplifying a series of practices that, in our experience, contribute to greater racial equity in grantmaking:

Work harder to “source” grantees. Funding is about relationships, and your program staff’s networks shape, to a large degree, what comes up on your radar. We hire diverse program officers and directors, and we have come to rely more on advisory panels, snowball approaches to developing lists of potential grantees, referrals from fellow funders, and organizations focused on particular racial and ethnic populations.

Trust investing in somewhat smaller organizations. With limited time, it is easy and tempting for funders to default to making larger investments in organizations that readily demonstrate more absorptive capacity and fundraising acumen. But this is not necessarily where there exist the closest relationships to community. And this approach doesn’t take into account historic patterns of underinvestment in organizations led by women and people of color.

Provide MYGOD (multiyear general operating dollars) especially for these organizationsThis has been the number-one learning from the BUILD initiative: the combination of multiyear funds — provided as general support, with a targeted focus on institutional strengthening — have contributed to greater impact. All three components are necessary and reinforce each other.

Ask and listen to these organizations’ leaders. It’s a delicate art to balance listening, feedback, and being a burden. We ask a lot of our grantee partners questions in service of our learning. And we know we’re not the only ones. But it’s essential to create avenues for unfiltered — or less filtered — communication. We’ve sought to do this by increasing the number of nonprofit leaders on our Board, inviting BUILD grantees to help shape our theory of change and evaluation design, and working through our communications to center and amplify grantee partner voice.

Network and support these organizations’ leaders and staff. The Ford Foundation Center for Social Justice — when we’re able to be there! — is designed to help social sector leaders meet and collaborate. Within that broad invitation, we have offered more targeted support based on what we’re learning and hearing in the field. Within the BUILD initiative, we’ve convened women leaders of BUILD grantee partners and designed an executive-transitions cohort for women of color leaders who are succeeding a founder or longtime leader — often white.

Use the good tools and supportive communities available in the field. In developing BUILD (as with all of our major commitments), we relied on examples set by our peer foundations, like those in the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project. We’ve also relied on the partnership, networks, data, and community provided by many organizations that make up the infrastructure of our sector: CEP, CHANGE PhilanthropyGEOCandid, and others. These days, we are finding the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity’s “Grantmaking with a Racial Justice Lens” guide to be particularly insightful reading.

Read the full article about what to do when you don’t know what you don’t know by Hilary Pennington and Chris Cardona at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.