More Than Money – Foundations As Strategic Partners

June 22, 2011 //

By Chris Gates, Executive Director,
PACE – Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement

As one of 38 affinity groups of the Council on Foundations, people are often confused about the role that we play in the philanthropic sector. PACE, and other affinity groups like it, works as a learning collaborative of funders doing work in the fields of civic engagement and democratic theory and practice. We think together, we share information, we learn together and we use each other as sounding boards. But we’re a learning collaborative, not a funding collaborative, so when folks either send me proposals or ask for specific fundraising advice, I’m often at a loss about what kind of advice I can or should provide.

But after a fair amount of reflection, I’ve decided there is one piece of advice about philanthropy that I can offer without equivocation, and that is for non-profits to view foundations as a source of something more than money. Too often non-profits come to program officers who have been funding work in their fields for years, even decades, and simply make an ask for money, without ever first having a conversation about the goals and the nature of the work being proposed. The truth is that the days of foundations doing business as venture capitalists for social entrepreneurs are long gone. In those days some funders would simply make a grant to an interesting person with an interesting idea who might have a promising track record, and then see what happened. In that old world of a more patient philanthropy there were only two possible outcomes, either the project would succeed or the field would learn something from it’s failure.

The field of philanthropy no longer has that much patience, or that kind of appetite for failure, and now the phrase that best describes the current state of much of the field is ‘strategic philanthropy’. This is a concept where the funder is more of a partner with the grantee, both in the goals and intentions of the work and in the mechanics of how that work takes place. There is a larger premium placed on partnership and, frankly, a larger premium placed on success. Foundations are interested in seeing progress in real time and so have become much more committed to funding work that will result in measurable progress within the time-span of the grant. On the downside, ‘strategic philanthropy’ can sometimes turn into situations where foundations simply negotiate what amounts to a contract for a book of work from a non-profit. In these instances the foundation is very much in charge and serves as the designer and director of the work. But in other instances non-profits and foundations can become creative partners in the process of indentifying promising avenues for social change and build on their collective knowledge to create cutting edge strategies that make a real difference in real time.

So the best advice I can give to non-profits is to do your research, find foundations who might be logical partners in your work based on their past funding, get to know them, learn about what matters to them, ask them what they think, be willing to float ideas–not proposals–past them and think of them as allies and partners in your work. There is no doubt that the relationship between the non-profit sector and the philanthropic community isn’t what it used to be and is in the process of evolving, and that has the prospect of either being a really good thing or presenting a real challenge.


  1. The Whitman Institute on June 24, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Hi Chris,

    My initial reaction to this post was defensiveness, stemming from an ancient bias from my days as a staffer at a 501c3 – that foundations whimsically decide to enter into a field/issue area without discerning (or talking with) the leaders indigenous to the field. Upon further reflection, though, I'm realizing that it's probably not that interesting or original to respond from that place. In two decades of working in the public sector, I've witnessed both/and and more – and I agree with you that what we actually need is more thoughtful partnership and collaboration.

    I've witnessed John Esterle, our E.D. at The Whitman Institute, sustain long term and mutually beneficial partnerships with leaders and groups for years. I believe that TWI's strategy of providing only unrestricted funds is a structural support for that kind of collaboration.

    The only other thing I'd like to raise up is that money can make things wierd. It can bring into play a dynamic where a person with decision making influence over monetary resources is automatically attributed more (and perhaps unwarranted or unwanted) power. This is one of the places of possible creative tension, perhaps, in strategic partnership. My sense is that naming it and working with it up front, could be a useful first step in forging authentic partnerships between funders and those who hope to gain their support.

    Thanks for the provocative post!