An excerpt from the February 2019 issue of Leap Update by Mario Morino and Lowell Weiss.

Lowell recently started advising a Seattle-based technology entrepreneur who's right at the beginning of his philanthropic journey. This new donor posed a question we wish every donor would ask: "What do I need to do if I want to be effective at this?"

When the two of us huddled to chat about that great question, we realized we had a valuable and relevant resource to mine: the Leap Ambassadors Community's profiles of positive-outlier donors. Although all of the profiles are different in terms of their issue interests, geography, and size, we see five common denominators we believe foundations should embrace:

  1. Effective foundations have talented, empathetic leaders. The Performance Imperative calls "Courageous, adaptive executive and board leadership" its preeminent pillar. The same thing is true for foundations. The profiled foundations have leaders who aren't just smart and strong but also empathetic. It's probably not a coincidence that many of them came to their foundation roles after spending significant time on the grant-seeker side of the funding equation.
  2. Effective foundations exemplify a "growth mindset." These foundations have developed expertise in the issues they care about, but they also have the humility to recognize that they have a lot to learn from those working at the ground level, those whom they hope to benefit, and researchers testing hypotheses about what works. They see their opportunity to learn and improve as one of the most energizing parts of their privileged jobs—and are eager to share their learning with others. In the words of Carol Dweck, the Stanford psychologist who coined the term "growth mindset," "Why waste time proving … how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them?"
  3. Effective foundations help grantees strengthen their organizations, not just programs. They typically provide grantees with flexible, multiyear funds, because these are the precious resources that enable grantees to strengthen the organizational muscles they need to deliver meaningful, measurable results over the long term. These funders are also likely to build staff capacity, and borrow consultant capacity, to help grantees strengthen their boards, develop their leadership talent, and build systems for continuous improvement.
  4. Effective foundations cultivate strong relationships with grantees. Whether they use the term "partner" or not, they don't see grantees as mere contractors. They see their grantees—and treat them—like professionals whose insights, expertise, and efforts are critically important for fulfilling the foundation's own mission. "Trusting, supportive, honest relationships are what make it possible for us to be true partners to organizations that are working to become higher-performing organizations," says Einhorn Family Charitable Trust Executive Director Jenn Hoos Rothberg. "And high performance is what makes it possible for them—and, by extension, us—to achieve more impact in the world toward our shared vision and goals."
  5. Effective foundations go to bat for their grantees with other funders. Nearly all foundations encourage their grantees to become more "sustainable," but only the best roll up their sleeves to help their grantees line up additional resources from other public and private donors. In the words of Mulago Foundation CEO Kevin Starr, "We always felt that funders have a unique platform to reach out to other funders [on behalf of their grantees]. We came to see that we had an obligation to do it."

There are plenty of other practices that these profiles have in common—from engaging in rigorous due diligence to soliciting diverse perspectives to ensuring reasonable reporting requirements. But the five core disciplines above are bigger than "best practices." They're fundamental building blocks for funders who aspire to truly be effective—to solve, not just salve, big problems. We thank the leaders of the profiled foundations for making these fundamentals clear to us. We promise, in turn, to share them widely with new and established donors alike.

Read more about funding performance at Leap of Reason Ambassadors Community.