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Embracing Relational Grantmaking

2014-August 7
by Don Matteson, Chief Program Officer

I was catching up on podcast listening earlier this week, and I was listening to the excellent Chronicle of Philanthropy show, "Making Change". The episode featured former W.K. Kellogg Foundation CEO Sterling Speirn talking about the lessons that the Kellogg Foundation's staff and board learned in the process of working with communities for the long(er) haul.

Speirn has a rich half-hour conversation with interviewer Hildy Gottlieb, offering a lot to think about if you're involved in philanthropy. One of the key points that stands out, however, has to do with one simple truth: Relationships Matter.

Until recently, we did almost all of our grantmaking using a relatively impersonal (but familiar) process: submit request, receive judgment; submit proposal, receive judgment; receive check, do work, submit report; receive judgment.

While the interactions we've had with the people and organizations we've funded are typically positive and cordial (if not friendly), they've been centered around projects, work plans, budgets, and outcomes. We're not leaving this approach behind entirely, but we are expanding our approach to place more emphasis on deeper, less instrumentally-focused relationships.

What does this mean for our work? For one thing, our program staff will be out in the communities we serve quite a bit more. We'll be having more conversations with our grantmaking peers, community leaders, stakeholder groups, and people who share our interests. Another result of this expanded focus is that we're hiring for a new Program Officer. This is a direct consequence of our decision to begin building deeper relationships. Relationship work takes time; far more than reading and responding to grant proposals. It means talking without a specific project or goal in mind; co-creating; heading down rabbit holes and finding your way out; exploring issues and ideas; finding The Answer then realizing with some perspective that it was actually a terrible idea. Together.

The direction we're headed is, frankly, refreshing. Despite being a shop staffed with dyed-in-the-wool introverts, there's a new energy around the office. In part, I think it's the excitement (and, to some degree, anxiety) associated with committed people gearing up for something new. I think it's also that we're starting to understand -- really understand -- that we're not going to do much to help the people we serve from behind a desk. It's happening "out there," so we need to be out there too.  

Photo by Joris Louwes
Flickr: Group Hug - I
Creative Commons 2.0 Licensed


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