Funder Spotlight: General Service Foundation

Two years ago, when Dimple Abichandani stepped in as Executive Director of the General Service Foundation, she noticed a gap between the social justice foundation’s grantmaking processes and the type of relationship they had with their grantees. Soon after, she and the GSF staff started making changes to their practices in order to fully embody trust-based processes. As part of our ongoing series on trust-in-practice, we sat down with Dimple to get the full scoop.

Can you describe the recent changes you’ve made in your grant contracts, grant terms, and reporting requirements? What’s the before and after?

We used to send out a grant contract that was basically 14 legal clauses. Instead of conveying support or enthusiasm for the work, our contract conveyed a series of legal restrictions. So we significantly edited it down, and revised the accompanying award letter with language that says “we are happy to support your amazing work.” While that may seem like a basic change, it goes back to the relationship. We want to convey that we’re in partnership, rather than in a contractual relationship.

While we had a stated institutional intention around general support, in actuality a surprising number of our grants were one year, project-specific grants. We made a new internal policy that our default grant is a general operating grant, with the goal of giving our grantees flexibility. We can still do a project support grant, but now we are more intentional and only do so when there is a good reason. We also lengthened the term of our grants; many one-year grants were converted to two-year terms, and two-year grants were converted to three-year terms. So many of our grantees are longtime grantees, so it just makes sense to make longer commitments to their ongoing work.

The most transformative change–and the one that has generated the most positive feedback from grantees–is our shift away from written reports. We used to require written interim and final reports; now we conduct phone calls with our grantees and log notes from those conversations. The phone conversations are more interactive and in them grantees share things that they might not put into a report. These phone conversations are an opportunity to keep building depth in our relationships with grantees.

What was the driving force behind these shifts toward a more trust-based approach?

The turning point was the [2016 presidential] election. We understood that our grantees were going into a uniquely challenging period and we wanted to be sure we were supporting them to do what was most needed at the time. We had a board meeting the week after the election at which I asked our board to increase our grants payout—and they said yes—but then I asked myself what else can we do to support our grantees? I spent much of my life [before GSF] as a grantee, so I know how much time it takes to apply for funding and to comply with grant reporting requirements. For example, I know that to do a report for a funder, you’re going to spend at least 10 hours on that report. We do not want our grantees spending all that time on reporting for our learning. We want them focusing on the important work that is really needed right now.

This is why we’re really inspired by The Whitman Institute, and your intentionality around making trust apparent in process and practice. When we looked closely at our process we saw that it was more compliance-based, rather than relationship-based—and that it needed to shift.

How were you able to move these ideas from concept to reality?

It was a phased process from November 2016 to March 2017, with a lot of active input from the staff. At our staff retreat we did an exercise where we used sticky notes to write down every single step we take to get grants to grantees—literally every little step—like signing the check, logging the report, etc. This helped us see the all the extra steps we were creating for ourselves. For example, we saw that our practice of paying out two-year grants in two installments isn’t just about cutting two checks. It means every single person on our team literally repeats the grant process twice—for one grant! When our CFO saw how much staff time we were using, it inspired him to propose alternative ways to pay out our grants. We realized that if we’re asking the grantees to do a lot, we’re creating a lot of work for ourselves as well. So after looking at every step in the process, the staff then removed many of the sticky notes and cut out the steps that maybe used to have a purpose, but that no longer served us.

Did you get any tough questions from your board regarding these shifts?

These changes toward a more trust-based approach are very consistent with our values and with the types of relationships that our team had long built with our grantees. The board hadn’t been aware of some of the bureaucracy that was in our process—they assumed we were small and nimble. So they only had support for our efforts to streamline.

We love how much you mention the role of trust in your work. How do you define the role of trust in philanthropy?

Simply put: we shouldn’t be in a funding relationship with someone if we don’t trust them. And if we trust them, our process should communicate that trust every step of the way.

We know your grantees must be thrilled, but what is GSF getting out of this shift?

One of the positive outcomes is that we’ve introduced a whole set of efficiencies. This frees up our time to work on advancing our mission. Let’s be real: paperwork doesn’t advance our mission!

More importantly, though, our process now mirrors our values as a foundation. A 3-year grant says “we may not know exactly what’s coming, but we know you’re leaders on the front lines, and you’ve got this.” This is especially important right now, given the dynamic and downright horrible political climate we’re in. By making these longer commitments and being more flexible, our grantees have to worry less about fundraising and can focus more on addressing pressing issues our communities are facing right now. That’s a benefit for us all.

What challenges and/or surprises have come up for you since making these changes?

The challenge has been taking on a lot of phone calls, which has forced our small staff to reprioritize our time. But it’s still completely worth it. The way I see it, it’s still 1 hour of our time rather than 10 hours of the grantee’s time. Every time we do one of these calls, we understand better how we can support and serve them, and we feel our relationship getting stronger in a way that a written report cannot offer. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how much our grantees appreciate the phone calls, and how much we’re learning about how we can be of service to our grantees. It helps us do a better job.

What is one piece of advice you would offer for foundations looking to make shifts toward a more trust-based approach?

The times that we are in challenge us as funders to look critically at all of our systems and processes. Are there steps that you can take to ease the bureaucracy of grantmaking to free up leaders’ time during this moment? Take the time to examine what your process looks like. Bring your staff together to understand the full picture, and try to see it from a grantee’s perspective. Ask yourself what the purpose is of each step in your process, and make sure that purpose lines up with your values and how you want to be in relationship with your grantees.

About this blog series: This is part of an ongoing series by the Whitman Institute, featuring foundations that practice trust-based philanthropy, i.e., approaching their decision-making and their grantee relationships in a way that acknowledges the power dynamics and realities facing nonprofits, and that invites more authentic relationships and communication. If you’d like to be considered for the series or if you have questions about taking steps toward trust-based philanthropy, email us at contact@thewhitmaninstitute.org.

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