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SCG Featured Member: Weingart Foundation

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Weingart Foundation: A culture of listening and communicating.

The Weingart Foundation is a private, grantmaking foundation that seeks to build better communities by providing assistance to people in need, thereby helping them to lead more rewarding, responsible lives. The Foundation provides grants and other program support designed to improve the capacity and sustainability of organizations to achieve their missions in the areas of health, human services, and education. The Foundation supports nonprofits across seven Southern California counties including Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Ventura and San Diego. Since 1972, the Foundation has awarded over $900 million to support organizations working in these fields throughout Southern California. With assets of approximately $700 million, the Foundation is one of the largest philanthropic institutions in the region.

"Listening to our grantees and giving them opportunities to provide feedback is essential to ensuring our grants have real impact,” says Fred Ali, president and chief executive officer of the Weingart Foundation. “This practice is also central to who we are as grantmakers.”

"Rather than saying ‘this is what we are doing,’ we start by asking organizations what they need and how can we best support those needs?” says Belen Vargas, Vice President of Grant Operations. “Ultimately the Foundation’s goal is to provide grants and additional support and resources that help improve the capacity and sustainability of nonprofit organizations.”

Toward this goal, Vargas says, “The Foundation believes funders are most effective when they solicit and incorporate feedback from their grantees and applicants as an integral part of their grantmaking strategy.”

As Grantmakers for Effective Organizations’ (GEO) research has shown, nonprofits view the quality of their relationships with funders as critical to their success. GEO findings also show that improving the grantmaker/grantee relationship results in more effective grantmaking.

For this reason, the ongoing development of strong relationships with its nonprofit partners is extremely important to the Foundation. And, according to Vargas, “The Foundation believes that the first and most important step in achieving strong working relationships with our nonprofit partners is only hiring program staff who have experience in the nonprofit sector.”

As a “responsive” grantmaker, the Foundation is committed to ongoing and candid discussions with grantees and applicants. Needs and trends are identified using a number of strategies, including ongoing communications with grantees throughout the grantmaking process. This information is then used to develop assumptions about the nonprofit environment, which are incorporated into the development of the grant plan for the following year.

This year, the Foundation’s assumptions were developed in consultation--and tested--with more than 100 nonprofit leaders, many of whom are grantees and applicants. According to Vargas, “We say to our grantee population, ‘this is what we're hearing from you… does that ring true? Are we missing anything?’ And, what often happens is that they want us to share the information with other funders.”

Then, in March, at the Foundation’s Annual Board and Staff Planning Meeting, the Foundation discussed these assumptions, which included analysis regarding the environment nonprofits and funders would be operating in over the next 12-18 months, helping to guide the development of the FY 2013 Grant Plan.  

The Foundation then shared its Grant Plan Assumptions via its website and electronic newsletter. The release of the Foundation’s 2013 Grant Plan generated a great deal of interest and valuable feedback through the Foundation website’s anonymous “Tell Us What You Think” link on its home page. “This is all a part of how we are continuously--and actively--listening to our grantees,” says Vargas.

A primary example of how the Foundation listens and responds to grantees was the decision to offer core operating support. It was through this process that the Foundation learned that many grantees throughout the region needed unrestricted core operating support funding, especially during the recent economic downturn. As a result, the Foundation made the decision to offer core operating support, beginning in February of 2009. The Foundation also heard, over time, that some grantees wanted to also use core support for building back their cash reserves. As a result, organizations can now choose to allocate a portion of their core support to help build back their reserves, which should help them strengthen the capacity and sustainability of their organization.

Yet another way in which the Foundation listens to its applicants and grantees is exemplified in its ongoing survey of grantees and applicants, which is conducted by an outsider evaluator. The anonymous grantee perception survey process works to continuously strengthen the Foundation’s grantmaking practices and learn about its applicants’ interactions with the Foundation. Surveys are sent to organizations that recently received grants, as well as to applicants whose proposals were declined. Survey questions asked, for example, if applicants thought program officers understood their organization and request. Did they find the review process to be fair and thorough? Did they believe the amount of time expended in applying for a grant is worth the effort? And, do they have any suggestions for improving the grantmaking process?

And because the Foundation is keenly sensitive to respondents’ time, there is a strong commitment to put the feedback provided to good use--and to incorporate the information into the Foundation’s grantmaking practices. In response to these surveys, respondents offer a number of constructive suggestions including recommendations to streamline reporting forms, create a template that applicants can fill in, as well as to clarify grant guideline criteria; for example, whether a grant will be a one-year or a two-year grant. One grantee that anonymously praised the clarity of the process explained, “The process was very clear and what the Foundation was looking for was clear; plus, our program officer helped us present the strongest proposal based on our needs and the Foundation’s mission.”

And, since the bottom line for time-pressed nonprofits is whether the amount of time they spend writing proposals is worth the effort, the Foundation was pleased to report that 99 percent of grantees--and 100 percent of applicants--reported that the effort was well worth the time spent and commensurate with the grant size.

In addition, the Foundation constantly looks for new and innovative ways to remain relevant and responsive to the needs of the nonprofit sector. For example, in 2009, the Foundation’s Board engaged TCC Group in an effort to understand how, as a funder, the Foundation could have more impact in its capacity building funding.

This led to the Foundation’s commissioning of a comprehensive study--Fortifying L.A.’s Nonprofit Organizations: Capacity Building Needs and Services in Los Angeles, released in the fall of 2010--to determine the organizational capacity of Los Angeles County nonprofits, along with the types of capacity-building needed to enhance their effectiveness. The release of the study was followed by a number of presentations to the nonprofit and philanthropic communities, generating significant discussion and interest from the field.

The Foundation also conducts annual “listening tours” with nonprofit and foundation leaders throughout the Southern California region. These tours provide opportunities for nonprofits to share their current opportunities, challenges and needs, and for the Foundation to address the larger issues that may be impacting them.

"It is through frequent, ongoing candid discussions between our grantees and program staff that we learn where the support is most needed,” says Ali.

Both Ali and Vargas also invest considerable time in public speaking and are frequently asked to comment on what they’re seeing in the sector. According to Ali, "we test our assumptions and are constantly collecting information, feeding it back and then verify our conclusions.”

Ultimately, The Foundation’s commitment to continually connecting with its grantees and key stakeholders helps to yield better relationships overall, which  results in more effective and relevant grantmaking--aligning its funding to the real needs of its nonprofit partners. “We place a high priority on sharing ideas,” adds Vargas, “by actively engaging grantees and key stakeholders in candid dialogue on an ongoing basis. Our goal is to best support our nonprofits, in order to help them achieve their missions.”

The Foundation also recognizes that the demand for services continues to surpass the capacity of most nonprofit service providers--particularly those serving low-income communities. “As a result,” says Ali, “we have maintained a relatively high grant payout level. And we will continue to focus our resources on improving the ongoing capacity and sustainability of our nonprofits, whose hard work and dedication is greatly appreciated in meeting the needs of the most underserved in our community.”