Walking the Talk

It’s a rare foundation that demonstrates the value of its grantmaking, its leadership role, and its values.

But that’s what the Duluth-Superior Area Community Foundation did.  Its motivation to make evident the benefits of its work lay in its own convictions:

  1. that discretionary grantmaking can be powerful, especially if pursued through five fields of interest in which the nonprofit communities themselves get to define and promote their own goals.
  2. that the CF’s  core values of Generosity, Inclusiveness and Engagement are excellent values to promote through the discretionary funds and leadership role of a regional community foundation.
  3. that development of more discretionary funds is in the community’s best interest and therefore a priority of the community foundation.

DSACF hired us, the Effective Communities Project, to address these evaluation opportunities, which we did through a series of focus groups to nominate the primary qualities of “benefit” experienced by recipient organizations, followed by an on-line survey of these recipients to estimate the extent of these particular benefits.

It worked out well.  Almost all recipients of grants from discretionary funds were included in the project.  They certainly got the message that the CF cares, that it listens, that it wants to learn, and that it sees itself as partner in the quest to legitimize and secure  discretionary funds that benefit the region.   Through this evaluation inquiry the CF could  show its colors and hear well-expressed views of what community benefit looks like in its region.   The focus groups in particular became a series of organizational learning events, with sharing across organizational boundaries, and highlighting themes around which the CF can communicate its value.

Another thing.  As DSACF’s vision statement makes clear, the values of Generosity, Inclusion and Engagement are important ones for the region.   Since we already had grantees’ attention, staff and board wanted us to check out how well these key values are playing out and being influential.  Here, too, it became clear that it was  beneficial simply having the discussion about what generosity, inclusion, and engagement even look like at a community or organizational level.  One could easily say these discussions themselves manifest generosity, inclusion, and engagement!

Several lessons for discretionary fund development became clear as well.  The stories of accomplishment told by focus group participants make very clear the value of discretionary grants.  From these stories Effective Communities Project could present specifics, themes, and numbers – which all make great talking points to any prospective donor.

In addition to these immediate benefits, which (BTW, for those evaluators present) flow directly from the process of this inquiry, came a number of suggestions for beefing up the CF’s grantmaking policies and practices. Completed in October, the report of findings and suggestions  are being studied and discussed by staff, and then committee, and then full board – and then a larger public.

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Steven E. Mayer, Ph.D. / January 16, 2012