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Learning from Funders of the Social Sector

September 29, 2014

Picking up from where we left off last week, our panel of funders discussed a number of different topics under the expert moderation of Dennis White, Executive Chairman of Ashoka Changemakers. Our panelists for the 90 minute discussion, which took place during our May, 2014 American Express Leadership Academy in New York City, were: Richard Brown, Vice President of Philanthropy at American Express; Phillip Henderson, President of the Surdna Foundation; and Rose Stuckey Kirk, President of the Verizon Foundation.

The complete recording can be found here.

I think it's fair to say that the discussion could be divided into five subject areas. Here are some of the panelists' comments - paraphrased and edited here for brevity.

The subject of partnerships came up repeatedly during the discussion. Dennis began by suggesting that partnerships are a "two way exchange of value." Rose talked about building partnerships that are the right combination of "expertise, rigor and metrics" in order to fulfill the Verizon Foundation's mission of "using technology to solve critical social issues." Phil spoke of the need to work through nonprofit partners to further the work of the Surdna Foundation, which is geared toward building sustainable communities. And, Richard said that American Express realizes that "nonprofits are doing the hard work in communities," and if we can help them develop better leaders, they will have more impact in their chosen fields.

Phil asserted that collaborations require "clarity of goals and roles" of all partners, and Rose talked about the need for organizations "to know who you are and what your value proposition is." She likes to ask, "What's your swim lane?" Phil suggested that "authenticity is key - it's an organization's biggest asset that it brings to the table." But, he also challenged organizations to be prepared to actually help solve a problem, not just seek grant support.

Approaching Funders
The subjects of partnerships and collaborations spilled over into a discussion about approaching foundations and building relationships with funders. Richard suggested that "you have to be creative in how you reach funders - you have to do your homework - which is vastly aided by the internet now." Rose challenged nonprofit leaders to "stop pitching and start engaging in conversation." And, Phil reminded the participants that every foundation approaches its decision-making differently, which means that your approach may have to be different for every potential funder that you approach.

Point of View
Dennis asked the panelists how they form their point of view and make decisions as foundations. Rose answered that she consults experts internally and externally, and has her staff attend conferences and workshops in order to constantly seek out information about what is happening in their fields of interest. She lives by the rule, "inspect what you expect," which means that she personally visits many of the foundation's grantee organizations to experience their work. Phil thinks that it's important to have more organizations with more tools, which can only help build social change. So, Surdna tends to fund organizations and projects that are perhaps not as high profile as other foundations. Richard talked about using the findings of a Bridgespan report, which identified a "leadership deficit" to form the basis of the Leadership program at American Express.

Metrics and Reporting
Finally, in answer to a number of questions from the participants about metrics and reporting, Rose asserted that while she is always interested in metrics, "stories are equally important - she never loses sight of the stories." Likewise, Phil suggested that "data is not always numbers" and that "stories are how we communicate with one another." Richard reminded all the participants that each of their stories as leaders is important and interesting, and that we were capturing some of their stories during the Academy.

If you have a comment or question, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and let's start a conversation there.

Next month: Celebrating Arts & Humanities Month


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