Exploring the Pillars: Transparent & Responsive Communication

Being clear in sharing what we’re doing and why we are doing it is important for all foundations. Recently at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, we have had some reminders that we need to get better at being transparent by framing and setting context in order to bring about better understanding with and among our grantee partners.  

Robert Sterling Clark Foundation accepts grant proposals that have been submitted to other funders. We do that because most, if not all, of the information we want to know is already captured in other applications. Our desire is for grantseekers to focus more time on their important work rather than spending hours writing to educate us. We think it is our responsibility to get to know them. Interestingly (and somewhat paradoxically), we’ve gotten some comments that we’ve made the process harder by not being specific enough in what we’re asking. Development Directors have looked at our website and wondered, ‘what are they really looking for?’  

For us, the application is just the beginning of the process, and we realized that if we were extra clear about that upfront, applicants might feel less anxious. We read that first submission, and if there’s a possible match, we talk with the nonprofit to get a better understanding of its work, and then if there’s continued interest, we go see their leadership program in action.  

Another example: in the past few years, we’ve begun hosting retreats for our grantee partners to get to know one another, build community, and share ideas and challenges. We thought of our invitation to join us on retreat as an opportunity, not an obligation. But after the first retreat, a few grantee partners spoke up and informed us that they don’t feel comfortable turning down invitations like ours — lest there be punitive repercussions for not attending.

This year, we were more explicit about the optional nature of the retreat. Many attended, but a few folks stayed home to do more important work.

In some ways we are naïve about the inherent power dynamic that lies between funders and grantees. Both Lisa and I used to be heads of nonprofits, and we sometimes forget that we are ‘The Funder’ and not just Lisa and Phil.  As we go along, we are learning that what we think we are saying is not always the same as what people are hearing. 

Phil Li is President and CEO of the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation. This post originally appeared on the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation blog and has been reposted with permission.