Funder Spotlight: Satterberg Foundation

The Satterberg Foundation is a values-driven family foundation focused on promoting a just society and a sustainable environment. Several years ago, Satterberg’s leadership decided to transform its grantmaking processes in an effort to build greater transparency and better alignment with their core values. One of the most dramatic changes was a shift from program-specific support to multi-year general operating support. We sat down with Executive Director Sarah Walczyk to get the scoop on why they did this and what they’re learning along the way:

What triggered Satterberg’s shift from project-specific grants to multi-year general operating support?  

We were run by the Satterberg family up until about five years ago, when the board decided to build a staff to run the day-to-day operations. When we started out as a new staff four years ago, we needed to rely on the values the family put in place as guiding principles to develop the systems and strategies for our work moving forward. One of our core values is community, so we brought together the family board, the staff, our grantees, and peers in the community to discuss what is needed most in our sector. All of the grantees emphasized the importance of general operating multi-year support, and the board agreed if that that’s what’s needed, that’s what we’ll do. 

Sounds like you and your board really put a lot of trust in the grantees in order to agree to that shift. How does trust fit into Satterberg’s overall values?

We have a very hands-on family board that takes a strong approach to learning and listening to grantees to inform our overall process. While trust hasn’t been named as one of the values, it’s been there as a founding principle of the work. In the early days, the family framed it more in terms of respect, which has remained one of our core values today. If you think about it, respect is actually about trusting the community and each other to use the tools and wisdom they inherently have. Organizations were founded to meet a particular need in the community, so we have to trust that they know what they need in order to advance their mission. Through multi-year general operating support we’re embodying trust right out the gate. It sends a clear message that we want to invest in organizations as a whole, not just a program. It allows us to be in relationship with grantees rather than just doing transactional grantmaking. It is a resonating statement: we need our grantees just as much as they need us.

What did it take to move the multi-year general operating grants from concept to reality?

It took about a year. First, we went through all of our processes. We all participated in going through the application process to actually experience what it’s like—and we realized a few things. For one, we had a lot of different processes—LOIs, etc.—so we scrapped a lot of that. We also noticed that we had a lot of jargon, so we decided to create a process that was very clear about what the asks were, to make it easier for people to apply.

We also took a lot of time collecting feedback as we went through the applications, and sharing that with grantees. As we rolled out the new application and new process, we started hosting Q&A meetings and webinars to answer everyone’s questions. We recorded the Q&A and put it on our website to make the process and our funding criteria as transparent as possible.

We’re also still in learning – we’re learning that the parameters might be a little too rigid and might leave out some strong grantees. But we’re not going to overthink this; we’re going to learn by doing. Throughout our process we continue to collect feedback from grantees, both in person and anonymously, and we’ll continue to refine as we go.

What challenges are coming up for you with these new processes?

In terms of our change to multi-year support, we had to make some changes in our criteria, namely that each grantees’ overall mission—rather than just one program—needs to be aligned with ours. We had to be transparent [with grantees] that we were putting a stake in the ground. We’ve had to have a few tough conversations. But we have found other ways to support those organizations, by connecting them with other opportunities in the community.

For the family, trying to do stuff that is responsive and quick can be a challenge. We’re learning also how to trust each other. The board had to give more power to the staff to make some decisions, and distinguish those from the bigger decisions we work on together in board meetings.

How does trust play into the relationship between you and your board?

We [the staff and board] spend a lot of time talking about trust and power dynamics, figuring out how to navigate through all of those. There needs to be transparency and conversation at all levels—between us and the board, us and our grantees—in order to be successful in our work. Relationships based on trust have been a hallmark of how [the staff and board] engages with each other and also how we want to be in relationship with grantees.

How is Satterberg Foundation benefiting from a more trust-based approach?

The longer-term grants allow us a level of learning that we wouldn’t have in a one-year grant. We’re able to build a relationship over time, and witness a grantees’ work over time. We’re constantly in conversation with them, attending their meetings and events. When we make longer-term open investments, we can get a little closer to the ground, rather than getting caught in reporting on a specific program with an outcome. We’re able to talk more with organizations about bigger issues like real systems change. As funders, this gives us more opportunities to reflect on how all the issues overlap: education, housing, health, environment. It allows us to see how to put pieces together for systems change, and how we can be a better partner to our organizations to help them in their journey.

How has The Whitman Institute’s approach to trust-based philanthropy influenced the way you to think about Satterberg’s processes?

What attracted me the most is that [trust-based philanthropy] has been happening for over a decade. We have a lot to learn without reinventing some of the processes. It’s great to learn from people who’ve been able to reflect on the impact that this type of grantmaking has made. We [at Satterberg] have the anecdotal data, but learning from a foundation that has been practicing and examining trust-based philanthropy has been an amazing opportunity in our learning journey.

What tips do you have for other funders that are looking to take steps toward a more trust-based approach, especially if they’re considering multi-year general operating support?

If you’re thinking about changing your grantmaking process, the first goal should be to involve your grantees—the people who are influenced by your grantmaking. Ask grantees what’s needed in creating a space that’s safe for them to share the challenges they have, and their needs.

As funders, we have to understand that the work [we support] can’t happen unless the organizations have a place to work and human beings who are compensated for that work. If you don’t realize that piece, you end up focusing way more on outcomes and accomplishments as opposed to a holistic picture of how philanthropy can support the success of an organization.

If you’re willing to invest just some of your portfolio toward multi-year general operating support, you can reflect on those grants and see how they are making an impact as opposed to your program specific grants. It’s an opportunity to learn about your grantee organizations’ needs.

About this blog series: This is part of an ongoing series by the Whitman Institute, featuring foundations that practice trust-based philanthropy, that acknowledge the power dynamics and realities facing nonprofits, and that invite more authentic relationships and communication with grantees. 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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