Exploring the Pillars: Support Beyond the Check

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Robert Sterling Clark Foundation recently invited the program directors from our New York City grantee partner organizations to join us on a retreat. This part of our work falls under the Trust-Based Philanthropy principle of providing “Support Beyond the Check.” We also think of thought partnership, support around leadership transition, introductions to potential funders or allies, and lending our offices for off-site meetings as ways we support grantee partners. 

For our retreat this year we went to a retreat center in Westchester County, just north of the city. For two days and a night, a facilitator led us through a series of conversations and activities that helped the 22 of us to get to know each other, build trust, and learn about each other’s work. We had large- and small-group conversations, and went on paired walks. Participants led sessions on alumni programs, evaluation, developing a racial justice lens, and other topics. We ate meals together, told stories, and many of us participated in a late-night karaoke session after the formal program ended. 

I hope that we developed the trust with our grantee partners before and during the retreat, so that we can provide a space to talk about what would really be helpful for them. Our intent is that both the retreat and the grantee learning community will provide support “beyond the check.” 

But we are mindful that trust-building in general, and “trust-based philanthropy” in particular, is tricky business. At the beginning of the retreat, we told participants that any time they wanted to have a conversation without us, the funders, they could just let our facilitator know and she would ask us to leave. No one asked and we thought we were blending right in, adding to the conversation without making things weird. But at the final wrap-up, a few brave participants said they wished there had been some grantee-only time in the agenda. And it struck us that an abstract offer to leave is not the same as deliberately planning funder-free time. 

Next time we will do it differently. And in addition to us changing our practice, we will hope that trust between us and our grantee partners continues to build—through conversation, funding, and simply hanging out together. In my mind, once someone has seen me sing Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” they will never hesitate to ask me for any kind of help. Except, perhaps, for me to continue singing.

By Lisa Cowan is Vice President at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. This post originally appeared on the Robert Sterling Foundation blog and has been reposted with permission.