Verbal reporting… the next step in effective philanthropy?

Louise Kuramoto is a Grant Researcher at the Myer Family Company. She works with families, foundation and corporates providing philanthropic research, administration and strategic advice with regard to their philanthropy.

Engaging effectively with grantees is something that many philanthropists and philanthrocrats alike strive to achieve but are we really getting it right? And when I talk of ‘engaging effectively’ I am not talking of post application feedback but rather the day-to-day relationships you hold with your grantees.

So, where do you sit on the spectrum? Think of a program you have funded and ask yourself three questions;

1. Do I have the direct contact details of the person managing or responsible for the program and have I had a conversation with them?

2. Can I explain the program’s three main challenges to achieving its objectives?

3. Am I aware of the program’s progression (or otherwise!) in the last six to twelve months?

For those of you who could not confidently answer ‘yes’ to each of the above questions you may want to give verbal reporting further consideration.

Otherwise known as face-to-face reporting, verbal reporting is a tool that some foundations have been using to varying degrees as a way to truly understand the organisations they fund and the complexities and challenges of the areas in which they work. Foundation staff cite that the reduction of paperwork for both the funded organisation and the philanthropic body is a bonus, but the real benefits of verbal reporting lie in the face-to-face interactions they have with their grantees. It is these face-to-face meetings they state, that have proved to facilitate a more open and honest dialogue between the two parties, consequently enabling the foundation to form a true partnership with its grantees and in turn, yield better results.

The Myer Family Company, in collaboration with The Portland House Foundation, held a forum late last year to explore this topic further, specifically focusing on The Portland House Foundation’s reporting model which encompasses:

  • A high trust, low documentation process;
  • The CEO or leader of the funded organisation committing to attend at least one face-to-face reporting meeting per year (this meeting would also include a number of other funded organisations who verbally report on their projects); and
  • Supplementary documentation (such as financials etc.) is requested as needed.

The organisations represented at the forum also described the verbal reporting process as highly beneficial to their work because it provides a ‘safe’ environment whereby their organisational and project challenges can be offered for discussion and brainstorming with the donor and other attendees. This point is especially pertinent for us philanthropists/crats, who have a tendency to focus on financial giving and at times underestimate the value of the non-financial support we are able to offer. Whether it’s as a sounding board to discuss program design or harnessing the skills, knowledge or networks of board members, the value these links and expertise can leverage is often much more than any monetary figure the donor could provide.

So next time you seek an update on a particular project or receive an application in the mail, think about picking up the phone and organising a meeting with your grantee, it might change your outlook entirely.

You can follow Louise on Twitter @LouKuramoto or the Myer Family Company via @MF_Philanthropy

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Lucky you!

I read an article in Arts Hub last week which shook me in my grant-making boots when I got to the final line – “There are certainly some ground rules, but if you think that getting a grant is not a lottery, I wish you luck”. The article, Heads or Tails? Getting that grant, was written by Tamara Winikoff (Executive Director of NAVA, the national peak body for the visual arts, craft and design sector). She writes regularly on the arts for Arts Hub and various other publications and, given her extensive knowledge and experience of the sector, she has an opinion which carries quite some weight. I think that’s why I was so surprised and disappointed when I read what she had to say.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I like to think that every funding decision I’ve ever helped a Board or Committee make has been a fair one, based on a set of known funding objectives and with a clear rationale. Will the project meet a clear need or demand? Is it viable? Is the organisation viable? Is project planning and management adequately well considered?

And no, it hasn’t been possible to support every good project – usually due to budgetary constraints – but in this instance the project that appears to offer most to its audience and the applicant organisation, and will deliver most strongly against my organisation’s funding objectives is the one that will be supported. And yes, funding rounds are hard work and can be draining, but the decision-making process is a multi-layered one where each recommendation is seen by more than one pair of eyes.

Before coming to Australia I worked as a Grants Officer for a UK lottery distributor. Part of my job was to review draft press announcements prepared by grantees about their newly awarded grants. I was forever having to edit out lines like “lucky lottery win for xxx!” and “what a stroke of lottery luck!” because it was considered that they gave the wrong idea: getting a grant wasn’t in any way about luck or lottery, it was about a lot of thought and hard work.  Every decision was a very robust one which had to be transparent and accountable to applicants and the lottery-ticket-buying-public because, after all, them buying the tickets was what enabled support for these projects to be considered in the first place.

I have to admit, reading Heads or Tails, I really got the sense that I was reading the words of someone who’d reached the end of their tether; jaded by a few really tough weeks at work. I could be wrong. If I am, perhaps I have to take solace from Tamara’s recognition that there are ground rules to grant-making and hope that others have faith that getting a grant is not a lottery.

I feel like I might have co-opted Caitriona’s high horse….


What’s innovation anyway?

I’m not embarrassed to say that much of my twenties was spent jumping from high-horse to high-horse. I had views on everything and felt that it was incumbent on me to share those views with any poor soul who would listen.  More often than not, like many twenty-somethings, what I lacked in eloquent reasoning I made up for in passionate rhetoric. Unfortunately, as well meaning as I was (and am) I was occasionally guilty of sweeping statements, the kind of which I had no real right to make.  I recall one occasion being in conversation with the eminent historian Professor Geoffrey Blainey, where I suggested to him my belief that the world had never faced an issue as critical or important as climate change.  He warmly, and without the slightest hint of denigration, suggested there were very few things the world had not faced before. It wasn’t that he disagreed with my views on the importance of action on climate change (I can’t actually speak to what his views are on that), it was simply my use of sweeping sentiments that he wanted to highlight.

There are a few years between me and my twenties now and my passionate youthfulness battles daily with my maturing sense of cynicism at the world around me. I’m still prone to jockeying my way on to the occasional high-horse or two but I have mastered the art of picking my battles much more carefully. All the while the words of Professor Blainey have manifested themselves into my thinking about philanthropy and specifically into the philanthropic obsession in Australia with ‘innovation’. Could it be the sector suffers from the same passion filled rhetoric that afflicted me in my twenties?

I was recently speaking with Stacey Thomas, from Myer Family Philanthropic Services.  She runs a weekly philanthropy popquiz that poses some of the questions facing philanthropy in Australia (you can follow Stacey and the quiz on twitter @thomstac). Stacey and I were having a chat over the meaning of ‘innovation’ and what it looks like in program or project form when philanthropy is asked to fund it.  Stacey kindly agreed to make the idea of innovation the focus of her popquiz in the week just gone and she increased her altruistic credentials further by sharing the results with me.

As I was reading over the comments left by the 29 respondents to the quiz there was one statement that caught my attention, I am always reminded that the innovation of contemporary dance is firmly rooted in classical ballet. For me this statement sums up some of my concerns with the philanthropic approach of supporting ‘innovative’ programs only. What actually constitutes innovation?  Is it something entirely new that’s never been seen before (which, as Professor Blainey alerted me to, is very hard to find)?  Or do we accept that innovation is more regularly built on the back of the work of many others. Is innovation a successful program that has worked in Fitzroy, rolled out in Sunshine?  In other words, how much innovation is enough?

My view?  Well it’s my position that innovation shouldn’t simply = new. If philanthropy wants to support innovation, then it should be the NFP sector and broader community that is dictating what that looks like.  If a community genuinely identifies that a well established program is the answer to its needs, then perhaps that should be innovation enough?

While I do believe philanthropy should be a little more flexible with what it defines as ‘innovative’, there will always be that passionate part of me that holds out hope for that one ‘thing’ that solves some of our most pressing problems.  It is important that philanthropy helps to keep the fires of creativity burning among our the leaders, thinkers and doers of our community. Just because the task appears impossible does not mean that it is.

The Innovation point is the pivotal moment when talented and motivated people see the opportunity to act on their ideas and dreams

– W. Arthur Porter

Everything that can be invented, has been invented

– Charles H. Duell, Director of US Patent Office 1899

You can follow the musing of Caitriona Fay on Twitter @cat_fay and the blog @3eggphil


Philanthropivot

In a recent blog post, Jennifer Barry, CEO of Footscray Community Arts Centre ponders “how useful the multi-year business plan is as a management tool in a super-charged, fast changing world”.  While acknowledging that business planning is essential to understanding where you’re headed as an organisation, she questions whether our obsession with KPIs and outputs is necessarily the best use of our time.  Jen suggests a middle ground, “an intelligent and intuitive balance between Control and Chaos”.

As Jen rightly says, the need to find the balance between control and chaos is not just true for arts organisations, but across the entire spectrum of the not for profit, and for profit, sectors.  And I think it’s something particularly pertinent for philanthropic funders to consider.

I’ve been pondering the same questions as Jen recently, but from the other side of the fence.  While Jen talks about the reporting requirements of government funders, I’ve been thinking about the reporting we expect as philanthropic funders, and wondering if we could look at things differently.

When we’re assessing grants it’s necessary to do the due diligence.  We look at an organisation’s business plan, the leadership, the financials, and the nuts and bolts of the project we’re being asked to support.  While I think this is perfectly reasonable – we want to be sure we’re supporting good organisations – I think we could perhaps be a little more flexible when the project is actually in funding, and in our expectations at the completion of the project.

At the Grantmakers in the Arts conference in Chicago last year, Joi Ito, soon to be Executive Director of MIT Media Lab, gave a presentation entitled ‘Living the Pivot’. Pivot is the capacity to change direction when things aren’t working out as you’d planned.  And more than that, it’s the ability to use the things you’ve learnt along the way to inform your change of direction.  The Pivot concept is currently hot in techno-land.  Some well known techno-pivots include Flickr, which was originally an online game, and YouTube, which was originally a video dating site.

I like the thought of applying the Pivot idea to philanthropy.  Much of the time we expect our grant recipients to report against the objectives stated in the funding proposal.  But what if we encouraged the organisations we support to be creative?  What if we said that it’s ok to fail, or ok to change direction?  What if we allowed for the possibility of a Pivot mid-grant?  Both Jen and the Pivot-geeks acknowledge there’s a much bigger risk of failure when you don’t stay on the prescribed path, but that’s the beauty of it.  As Jen says, “the failures aren’t a waste of time… they just bring us closer to a better solution.”  If we allow for, and even encourage, creativity and flexibility, there’s a possibility we might stretch some boundaries.  We might start to think about things in different ways and create new possibilities.  And we might fail more often.  But isn’t philanthropy the perfect vehicle to take some risks..?

You can follow Debra Morgan on Twitter @debmorgan22