Exploring the Pillars: We Do the Homework

As funders, it’s important for us to approach our work with the understanding that it’s the foundation’s job to get to know prospective grantees, and not theirs to educate us. They’ve got important work to do. And so do we. 

With Robert Sterling Clark Foundation’s open application process, we welcome submissions from organizations that believe they align with our interest in leadership development. We accept materials prepared for other funders as part of our streamlined process so that the nonprofits can focus on their core activities.

As one of the six pillars of Trust-Based Philanthropy, “we do the homework” is a reminder that the onus is on us to understand the organizations and how they might fit with our interests. With the variety of applications we receive, we’re even more mindful of that responsibility.   

We have multiple readers of grant proposals; this ensures that we have a few sets of eyes on every application.  And we have criteria, which we share on our website for prospective grantees, that reflects our priorities and helps us focus as we do our initial review. If a proposal seems like a possible match, then we start doing our due diligence – researching the nonprofit on the web and others doing similar work, talking to their funders and collaborators along with groups that might know them, and understanding the financial health of the organization.   As part of our process, we typically do our version of a 360-degree look at the nonprofit: talking with a couple of past program participants about their experiences, an organization that often works with alumni of the program, a partner of the nonprofit on its interaction, and organizations that are in the same space.  

And if all goes well, then we will arrange to go meet with the nonprofit and see their leadership development programs in action.  It is this opportunity to meet, see, hear and feel the organization that yields the invaluable information and insight into its leadership, strategy, priorities and values.  Of course, there are questions and poking around:  it’s not a ‘gotcha’ mindset but one of uncovering and learning. 

These processes are not likely to be very different from what’s done by some other funders, but it is a reminder for us to be intentional in the way that we work throughout the grant review. And it’s something that we continue to refine as we gain more experience. Since our entry into funding leadership development, we’ve also become clearer about what we don’t fund – like social entrepreneurship or service years, which are primarily focused on different outcomes.

Doing the homework, or taking primary responsibility for it, and spending time with the organization is the beginning of building a relationship – whether we move forward or not – and gives them cues about our values and approach to grantmaking.

Phil Li is the 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.