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Lessons learned from early-stage grantmaking organizations.

After conducting extensive interviews, the Center for Effective Philanthropy has thoughtfully distilled an insightful guide that offers advice on leadership

“After conducting extensive interviews, the Center for Effective Philanthropy has thoughtfully distilled an insightful guide that offers advice on leadership; on approaching work alongside board members, staff, and grantees; and on the importance of taking risks and orienting all of our organizations toward continuous learning and improvement.”

These words of praise mark the foreword to “Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations,” a substantive report on the opportunities and challenges facing early-stage grantmaking organizations. The trustees of The Leona M. and Harry B. Hemsley Charitable Trust offered the above quote and provided research funding for the report’s authors, Ellie Buteau, Charis Loh, and Hannah Martin. The report reflects intensive research to determine how grantmaking organizations can achieve short and long-term success.

“After conducting extensive interviews…”

What was once a topic reserved for specialist conferences, the world of big data forces organizations – especially nonprofit organizations – to engage more deliberately with research methods and methodologies. Under the auspices of The Center for Effective Philanthropy, the authors opted for a qualitative data strategy. Over the course of 2018, the authors interviewed 35 leaders from 14 grantmaking organizations with each interview lasting 60-90 minutes. The authors introduced several control variables to ensure that their findings were valid, relevant to the subjects of their study, and enticing to practitioners, scholars, and interested observers alike. To that effect, the selected interviewees represented organizations that ranged between approximately $9 million to $300 million in recorded giving (median value of approximately $40 million); had assets between approximately $400 million to $6.4 billion (median value of approximately $550 million); and had been in operation for less than five years to less than 20 years.

“…the Center for Effective Philanthropy has thoughtfully distilled an insightful guide that offers advice…”

By distilling the experiences of leaders from early-stage grantmaking organizations, the authors were able to achieve something with this guide that eludes most researchers: they made knowledge accessible and tangible. What may have easily been discarded as interviewees’ nostalgic memories found new meaning and utility within the framework of the authors’ study. With their sights set firmly on improving the present and future of philanthropic operations, the authors transcended the genre of an academic study, and were able to create “an insightful guide.”

“…on leadership…”

The first element – “Leadership characterized by humility, courage, and resourcefulness” –encourages leaders of emerging philanthropic organizations to cultivate and embrace the maxims of the Third Sector: “Be Humble,”; “Be Bold”; and “Learn the Basics From Others.” While risk-taking and setting a strategic direction have a familiar ring to aspiring philanthropists hailing from the private sector, humility and turning to others for advice may not be as natural. What’s more, the authors stress the importance of hiring the rightpeopleduring the early organization-building phases. There was agreement among the interviewees to hire professionals who can cope with the ambiguity and all-hands-on-deck mentality of early-stage organizations.

“…on approaching work alongside board members, staff, and grantees…”

The second element – “Shared understanding among donors, board, staff, and grantees about how the organization will approach its work” – concentrates on the relationship-building and maintenance processes at all levels of the grantmaking organization. The authors shed light on some of the most significant types of relationships: the donor/donor family–grantmaking organization relationship; the funder-grantee relationship; the board-staff relationship; the staff-grantmaking organization relationship (vis-à-vis the organization’s culture and values); and, the prospective employee–grantmaking organization relationship. By relying on interviewee insights, the authors demonstrate the importance of transparency, trust, and clear communications in managing these relationships successfully.

 “…and on the importance of taking risks and orienting all of our organizations toward continuous learning and improvement…”

The third and final element – “An organization with a sense of what success is and an orientation towards learning” – deals with a more theoretical and future-oriented approach. The interviewees urge early-stage organizations to ask tough questions and have difficult conversations not just initially, but throughout the organization’s existence. A clear definition of what success means to the organizations and its members is as important initially as it is in the future. It is equally important for organizations to find meaningful ways, both at the start of their operations and after they have matured, to measure their impact on society, and, if necessary, recalibrate. The guide, in other words, concludes with the most valuable piece of advice. Organizations are not static entities; they evolve, often according to their individualized trajectories.

Even a quick skim of “Greater Good” leaves the reader convinced of one incontestable fact: early-stage grantmaking organizations will struggle to leave their mark in this crowded philanthropic ecosystem of the 21st century without outside help.

As philanthropic organizations progress through different stages of maturity, their needs evolve, as well. The authors of “Greater Good” make a case for relying on external expertise during the nascent stages of an organization’s life cycle. S. Sutton & Associates Inc. offers that external expertise that can add value to your organization at various stages during your organizational life cycle.

Whether it involves designing communications to advance donor and constituent engagement, developing strategic planning, or evaluating fundraising and development practices, many philanthropic organizations don’t have the in-house capacities to deal with these issues effectively and sustainably, which is how and where S. Sutton & Associates Inc. can provide value.

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