How to Strike Fear in the Hearts of Grantees

HorrorIn my experience, few words strike fear in the hearts of foundation grantees like the following, when dropped by a program officer’s lips:

 We’re about to start a strategic planning process.

 Aarrrgh! Nooooo! I can almost hear the screams of terror here in my top-secret vacation retreat spot. And who can blame them?

 A funder undergoing strategic planning often pulls the rug out from under grantees, at least temporarily, while the funder “suspends grantmaking” for a few months or even a year to “evaluate priorities and approaches.”

 During that time, grantees might be asked to answer questions about their work, participate in discussion or focus groups, or even (gulp) share their opinions with funders in person. And all the while, the foremost question on a grantee’s mind must be, “Will they still continue to fund our organization?”

 It’s not that strategic planning is a bad idea. In fact, many funders might even benefit from doing it more often (and some even for the first time). But strategic planning usually means some kind of change – amplifying efforts in one area, diminishing them in another, realigning the ways in which the foundation interacts with the nonprofit community, changing the funding model to focus more deeply but less broadly.

 It’s understandable that funded nonprofits might get nervous, but there are some things that funders can do to help soothe nerves and alleviate uncertainty. When starting your strategic planning process:

 1. Communicate early and often. No one likes surprises – at least, not when they have to do with a potential loss of funding. The earlier you can let your grantees know that you are going to engage in a strategic planning process, the more time they have to get used to the idea and prepare. As your process unfolds, it will help mitigate rumors and create buy in if you continue to provide updates, and possibly share the research you are gathering that will ultimately inform your new plan. If nonprofits and community leaders understand the challenges your research reveals, or the lack of impact a “sacred cow” program delivers, they may be more willing to back your new strategic direction.

 2. Be transparent. Why are you undergoing planning, and why now? What process will you use and how long will it take? By answering these questions, you at the very least will give your grantees and indication of how long they might feel uneasy. Answer questions as honestly and directly as you can. If you can’t answer a question right away, say so – then get back to the questioner as soon as the time is right.

 3. Be direct. Are you anticipating major changes in your grantmaking or internal organization? If so, say so. If not, say so. Being honest about what grantees might expect helps them to get over their negative reactions faster and embrace the fact that change is coming. You can help by connecting grantees to potential new partners and new sources of support that might benefit them during and after your planning process.

 4. Be quick. Taking a year off from grantmaking to evaluate your own impact and strategy is incredibly hard on grantees. The faster you can get to your new plan, the better for everyone. If you feel the need to explore aspects of your work more deeply over a longer period of time, consider doing so while the wheels are still rolling, then use the lessons and observations you’re gathering in real time to inform your new strategy.

 5. Don’t become invisible. Locking yourself away from grantees will hurt your ability to build trust in your new strategic plan. Before you go into planning mode, meet with grantees in person to let them know – or at the very least pick up the phone. Don’t rely on email to shield you from delivering unpleasant or unwelcome news. As your planning process progresses, make sure you’re still present in your community and among your grantees. Just because your grantmaking is on hiatus doesn’t mean your individual caring and camaraderie should be. There are many ways to support your community personally and professionally beyond day-to-day foundation work. Make new connections between grantees, talk about a community issue over lunch, and yes, answer countless questions about how your strategic planning is going.

 The more you prepare grantees for a foundation’s strategic planning process and the more you continue to communicate during the process, the better your chances that your plan will be well-received and endorsed by your grantee community. Even if you won’t make everyone happy with your new direction, you will have at least given them the information and warning they need to develop their own responses.

 Of course, once your new plan is announced, there are things you can do to help your grantee community adapt. Look for those next week!

Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a nationally recognized philanthropy expert, consultant and speaker. Listen to her podcasts, follow her on Twitter, or join her at the Exponent Philanthropy CONNECT conference on October 7th, where she will lead a session on Grantmaking Essentials.

© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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