There is a growing movement in institutional philanthropy toward grantee inclusion, which encourages more collaboration between foundations and their grantees.
Grantee inclusion is becoming especially relevant because more foundations are incorporating public policy advocacy into their philanthropy. When foundations involve their grantees’ community input, they can bring more legitimacy to their role in policy debates.
How—and why—one foundation included grantees in strategy design
This brief provides insight into grantee inclusion processes by highlighting the experiences of the Health Foundation for Western and Central New York (HFWCNY), which included grantees as it designed a new advocacy grantmaking strategy. It explains the early design decisions and motivations that led HFWCNY to center grantees in its strategy development process, details its process for grantee inclusion, and highlights key insights gained from facilitating grantee listening sessions.
The experience shows the value of engaging grantees in strategy design and provides lessons for other foundations seeking to improve their practices around grantee inclusion and participatory philanthropy. We hope these insights will advance transparency and legitimacy in philanthropy.
Engaging in advocacy grantmaking
When we asked HFWCNY’s board members what motivated them to move toward developing an advocacy grantmaking strategy, they said national policy shifts were a major factor in making advocacy a priority. With many high-stakes policy shifts on the agenda, foundations have come to see advocacy as an important way to fulfill their mission alongside other programmatic activities.
The decision was also because of a better understanding of the difference between advocacy and lobbying and the foundation’s potential assets as an authority and platform for public policy engagement.
The foundation’s board members felt transparency was key to preserving the integrity of the foundation’s mission. They also believed the foundation would be most effective if it empowered its partners, including its grantees, to lead this strategy.
A process for grantee inclusion in strategy development
HFWCNY’s process for engaging grantees in its advocacy strategy highlights ways to ensure grantee inclusion is authentic. These are some key considerations:
- Understand input versus feedback. HFWCNY’s inclusion of the community in strategy development is positioned between consulting (where nongrantmakers give input and grantmakers receive it) and involving (which focuses on two-way communication that leads to grantmaker decisions).
- Solicit diverse perspectives. The foundation assembled grantees from across its grantmaking portfolios to participate in listening sessions. The group’s diversity enriched the conversation and brought together multiple perspectives.
- Engage neutral listeners. Foundation staff framed the discussion but were not involved in the discussion itself.
- Where the listening happens matters. The foundation hosted sessions in four regions of its service area, rather than asking grantees to come to the foundation. Grantee input said it showed that the foundation respected their time.
Grantees express a need for policy leadership in the face of upcoming challenges
During the listening sessions, grantees voiced their concerns about policy changes, expressed the need for more policy leadership, and shared their appreciation for being involved in the foundation’s strategy. These are some key take-aways:
- Grantees were concerned about upcoming policy changes. There was a widespread sense among the grantees of greater vulnerability both for their organizations and the populations they serve because of current and proposed policy changes. They were unsure how to manage staffing and programming cutbacks as their communities face potential increased needs because of changes to the Affordable Care Act.
- Grantees are knowledgeable about policy changes but do not have time or bandwidth for advocacy. They also called attention to the numerous and complex policy environments in which they operate.
- Grantees feel it is an important time for increased policy leadership. There was a unified sense of purpose among the grantees about the need for leadership on health care policy. They were emboldened by their sense that there is tremendous opportunity to improve the health care system. Some grantees were optimistic about being engaged in an urgent movement by amplifying constituents’ voices.
- Grantees believe philanthropy is key to supporting policy advocacy. Grantees expressed a need for philanthropic funders to be even more engaged in supporting and participating in policy advocacy. They regard funding for policy advocacy as important yet lacking. Most grantees voiced an interest in influencing the foundation’s strategy and approach to policy advocacy and appreciated the opportunity to participate in the listening sessions.
Grantees had recommendations for the foundation as it engages in advocacy. The grantees’ recommendations included steps the foundation could take beyond its role as a funder, such as extensive support for advocacy strategies including coalition building, grassroots organizing, influencer education, media advocacy, policy analysis, policymaker education, public education, and regulatory feedback to influence public policy.