How Flexible Are You, Really?


A picture of a mature flexible woman lying over white background

I recently had the pleasure of helping to tell the story of an incredible grantmaking initiative at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust called “Healthy Places NC.” This is an effort to improve health and wellness in several of North Carolina’s poorest counties, but the activities that are part of this effort are all community designed and community driven. Rather than designing the rules of engagement for this initiative, the Trust sees itself as a learning partner and team member. It has even redefined the roles of its program officers to accommodate the nature of this initiative, getting them out from behind desks and transforming them into community connectors and resource agents whose main job is to support local residents on the ground.

This approach requires a tremendous amount of flexibility on the part of the Trust, since every county has different ideas, different partners – even different personalities. But our interviews with stakeholders in four Healthy Places counties told us that this flexible approach is beginning to create some deep and lasting changes in the ways residents of these counties think about their communities and what they are capable of accomplishing.

How often do we, as philanthropy leaders, embrace flexibility as an important – or even pivotal – part of our strategies for achieving our overall goals? Here are some examples I have seen of foundations keeping their eyes on the prize by being flexible:

  • Blue Shield of California Foundation sought out qualified community health clinics that it can provide core operating grants to, rather than simply wait for them to respond to an RFP. Once they applied, their board encouraged staff to be flexible with grantees who might not have the capacity to submit perfectly written proposals;
  • Annie E. Casey Foundation decided to share lessons learning mid-way through a project, rather than wait for many years after the evaluation results were in;
  • The Cleveland Foundation’s MyCom youth development initiative often holds meetings in the late afternoon or early evening to accommodate the participation of youth leaders who are in high school;
  • The Ohio State Bar Foundation stepped out of its traditional approach of modest, one-year grants to make a multi-million dollar, multi-year investment to prepare young people of color for post-secondary and professional success.

Unfortunately, I have also seen some foundations rigidly approach their work as if they were the federal government:

  • Proposals must be signed in blue ink (not black);
  • If a minor detail is missed the application is tossed out;
  • Program areas exist in such tight silos that if a grantee can help the foundation achieve its overall mission, but does not fit neatly into any one program area, it doesn’t get funded;
  • Grantees are forced to contort to the needs of their funders through such things as short deadlines for proposals, site visits scheduled with little notice, and highly prescriptive “initiatives” designed by the funder.

As funders we are lucky to have a great deal of flexibility at our disposal, if we choose to use it. Spend the next 10 minutes thinking about your people, partners and grantees. How could you accomplish more, achieve greater impact, and perhaps save money by accommodating a need, or being flexible on a guideline?


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a nationally recognized philanthropy expert, consultant and speaker. Join her on June 18th for an Exponent Philanthropy webinar “Let It Go: Rethink Your Grantmaking Processes to Reclaim Your Edge” or at the Exponent Philanthropy CONNECT conference, where she will lead a session on Grantmaking Essentials.
© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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