Are Blindspots About to Trip You Up?

A May 6, 2019 Nonprofit Quarterly article—“Hey Foundations: Nonprofits Can’t Register for This Conference, but That’s Not the Real Problem”–called out foundations and their affinity group, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), for excluding the groups that do the heaviest lifting in the social sector from their upcoming conference. Author Kari Aanestad, co-director of GrantAdvisor.org and the director of advancement of the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, noted that nonprofits were not invited to attend CEP’s biennial conference, though a few were presenters.

“The thin representation of nonprofit organizations at CEP isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but becomes one when it symbolizes a larger dynamic that deserves attention,” she writes. “That dynamic is exclusion and elite agenda-setting, offering limited opportunities for the full community that is impacted by philanthropy to participate in key conversations where priorities get set, decisions get made, and ideas get funded.”

Elitism Causes Blindspots

This article brought to mind my work many years ago with a large foundation. After learning all I could about a new subject and speaking with dozens of foundation leaders (and a few direct service provider nonprofits) around the country, I helped the foundation design a new grantmaking initiative. Because this type of grantmaking was novel in the region, the foundation launched the initiative with a detailed Request for Proposals and invited local nonprofits to workshops to learn more about the foundation’s interests. In response to questions at these workshops, we revised the RFP several times. We ended up making sizeable two-year program grants to about 20 nonprofits, with the goal of testing the effectiveness of this “new model” of grantmaking.

During the initiative’s second year, the foundation hired an evaluation firm to conduct a multi-site evaluation of the model and, if possible, determine whether the funded programs were effective. The evaluation was highly informative—but not in the way the foundation and I had hoped.

We learned that our approach had been fraught with naïveté and likely elitism from the start. We had used a top-down approach to design the initiative, conducting “best practices research” by listening mostly to other grantmakers–not the nonprofits doing the work, nor their beneficiaries. The tweaks we had made to our RFP in response to prospective grantee feedback had been primarily cosmetic. Our evaluation efforts surfaced further blindspots, including the fact that at the time (the late 1990’s), very few direct services nonprofits were using computers to monitor progress toward an explicit set of target outcomes. Despite significant expertise, a big budget, an extended timeline and technical support for grantee data collection, the evaluation consultants were unable to determine the efficacy of the foundation’s new grantmaking model.

Including Missing Voices

In her NPQ article, Aanestad notes that important perspectives are missing from CEP’s popular Grantee Perception Report, whereby foundations invite grantees to tell them how they are doing. Rarely does a funder invite the feedback of applicants that did not succeed in winning a grant. Nor are intended beneficiaries of funded programs asked to provide feedback to the funder. She warns, “Without incorporating all of the voices of those impacted by the work, there’s a risk of unintentionally perpetuating trends and practices that are unquestioned, not inclusive, inefficient, and even harmful.”

Her piece concludes with an invitation to grantmakers to “deepen their knowledge of the different models of participatory grantmaking and trust-based philanthropy.” She offers resources for doing so, “The Ford Foundation and Foundation Center have commissioned some amazing pieces on participatory grantmaking (here and here) and a handful of cutting-edge funders are pioneering new practices that deeply engage the feedback and lived experiences of grantees through trust-based philanthropy.

After much reflection about that frustrating experience 20 years ago, I realized I needed to listen more and listen better to those working on the front lines of social justice work. The incident taught me to be more humble in my work. I’m still learning, but now I tend to ask more questions of myself and others about unspoken privilege and the uneven power dynamics that may be at play.

iStock image by Gremlin