Philanthropy often seems to be reinventing itself. Strategic plans are undertaken; old priorities get restated; new buzzwords develop. While there is an ongoing argument about how much this kind of churn may actually help the ultimate beneficiaries, a small foundation doesn’t often take the time or budget for that kind of contemplation. Yet small size can enable a certain flexibility and responsiveness that can drive change perhaps even more effectively than the most competent big budget efforts.
At the Eva Gunther Foundation (EGF), a public charity founded by my wife Anne Krantz and myself in 1999, the vision is to give other girls access to experiences similar to those Eva had. Many highly capable girls are financially unable to have life-broadening experiences after school or in the summer, and we wanted to make that possible for some teenage girls. We established two funds: The Program Grant funded scholarships to grantee programs, and the Fellowship allowed a girl nominated by a mentor or teacher to do something specific she wants to do but cannot afford.
This mission brought us into contact with the savvy and dedicated leaders of the many grassroots social service agencies that provide direct services to girls and young women. It was a good match. We wanted Eva’s love and passion—her presence—to infuse everything we did. We wanted relationships with our grantees (our trustees would make site visits, serving as informal program officers). We wanted the grant process to be easy. We wanted individual girls to be helped. Our communication was quite transparent regarding all of this, which was gratefully received by the agencies we supported. “I don’t have to explain, ‘Why Girls?’ to you,” we often were told. “You get it.” And we did. We got them, and they got us.
I’ve recently taken to calling our approach “process-driven grassroots philanthropy,” but philanthropic thinkers have been promoting these ideas for years. Mark Fulop calls it “relational philanthropy”; Paul Shoemaker, in his essay “Reconstructing Philanthropy,” advocates for long-term commitment, unrestricted giving, listening, and connection as key elements needed to make philanthropy more effective.
The point is, social change is hard! It takes a lot of focused and consistent work, and it happens in fits and starts, in tries and fails, by plan and by happenstance. While grantor language is full of phrases like “community building,” “engaging all the stakeholders,” and “leading from the bottom,” these phrases are meaningless unless they are taken seriously. “Seriously” does not mean mandating some kind of strategic plan/deep dive with a generous amount of philanthropic dollars and then telling the agencies that participated, “Good luck!” It means supporting the people on the ground who actually do the work and know what they are doing. Long-term, visible, and committed presence by a funder can vastly increase grantees’ chance to succeed.
As an idiosyncratic small foundation, though, EGF was operating on values-driven instinct. In 2004, it seemed time to throw a party. We did, and it was one of those evenings infused with so much energy that it felt like the top of the room would blow off. Appointments were made; business cards exchanged. There were two big takeaways: One was that these agencies rarely talked to each other, and the second was that they really, really loved doing so. There was great potential in simply bringing these leaders together. Why hadn’t it happened before?
First, the business of philanthropy often is a barrier to such engagement. Foundation funders view agency applicants through the lens of their own strategic goals, and generally require annual reporting and grant reapplication. Outcome-oriented metrics are very popular. Agencies’ strategic thinking can be constrained by this; grantees couldn’t look up and see each other. Second, neither the philanthropic nor government systems recognized “girls’ service” as a sector. Girls’ agencies were siloed (i.e., funded) by function—arts, reentry, life skills training, etc.—and had little motivation or encouragement to reach across these barriers. Third, community building doesn’t happen overnight. Community is relationship, and it takes time and opportunity to build relationships. Agency leaders, with their nose to the grindstone, had little of either.
Nonetheless, EGF became convinced that there was immense synergy among these girls’ service organizations (GSOs). Our “aha” moment: realizing that despite working in many modalities, they shared a common pedagogy. They listened to their girls. They took them seriously. And they acted to help their girls achieve their goals. The women leading these agencies exemplified commitment, sophistication, compassion, and expertise, often with very little recognition or remuneration. The qualities expressed in their work with beneficiaries carried over to their organizational cultures. Listening and collaboration were integral; there was a preexisting bias to cooperate.
The Eva Gunther Foundation had become the unofficial convener of Bay Area GSOs. Our plan, such as it was, was simply to keep bringing the agencies together and see what happened. The next two years, we spent about $2,500 hosting an annual lunch program for about 40 to 50 staff of the diverse group of agencies who had found us. The dynamism grew. Relationships began to form. There were a few small collaborations. In 2010, we formalized that role by opening a third fund, Community Engagement, increasing the budget to $15,000 and hiring a part-time worker to do some research, manage communications and coordinate a series of brown-bag lunches for executive directors (EDs) and other agency staff; the presenters were women of their peer agencies. At one, a grantee-driven process led the attendees to the conclusion that an association of girls’ service agencies would increase the visibility and effectiveness of each of them. They began meeting informally to pursue creati