A Terrific Night, Talking Philanthropy

Barbara Lawrence, Executive Director at The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation

Barbara Lawrence, Executive Director at The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation

Last week, members of Women United in Philanthropy and their guests came together for a fabulous evening of discussion about grant making, foundation giving, and how best to make a difference by giving money. That may not sound exciting to everyone, but for members of our giving circle–all of whom vote to “give away” our collective money and many of whom lead organizations that write grants for other people’s money–it was fascinating.

With guest speaker Barbara Lawrence, Executive Director at The Henry and Marilyn Taub Foundation, we explored ways in which we might change our thinking about grants and about grant making. Here’s a few interesting thoughts I came away with:

* Before we make decisions about what cause to support or to which organization to give funds, we should consider carefully our own values and do the research to see if the things we care about match up with what is needed by the community you seek to serve. We may find that something we think is important is, in fact, no where near as urgent and necessary as something else we’ve never considered.

* There is a continual struggle to measure impact in the world of philanthropy — it’s not just us! How do we find qualitative measurements that evidence how we are improving lives? We tend to measure outputs—how many people did we serve? How many training classes did we hold? How many women ended the program with jobs? But we never really know, did our program change their lives and put them on a path to success? If we don’t know how to do it, why to we hold agencies to the task? Is it really that important? Don’t we want to try new ideas, even if they don’t work?

* Agencies need operating funds but we (donors and grant makers) want to fund “shiny objects.” We ask them to use our funds for programs, specific programs, not just for general operating expenses, not to just fill the budget holes. But the truth is, that’s what they need in order to keep helping the people we want them to help. Shouldn’t we change the way we think about this?

* Maybe we should have a much more collaborative process. Maybe we should work with an agency, help them develop a terrific proposal, allow them to tell us how much they need, and over how many years. And maybe we develop giving policies that are tailored to each grant award—in this case, its operating funds; in this case, its capacity building funds; in this case its one-time, in this case, its multi-year. Maybe we should partner with those we fund in a way that makes us in-service to them, rather than the other way around!

These are just the points that resounded with me. There were SO many more, and I hear from members who were there that they, too, found the discussion to be fabulous. As WUIP members, we are philanthropists. Its why we join this circle. We donate our annual membership contribution to the “collective pot” and we ask organizations that address the issues we care about to bring us their best proposals. We vet those proposals, and the agencies asking for our support, and take the strongest proposals to our entire membership for a vote. We give our entire “pot” away each year, to one proposal. Our thinking is we’re doing something big, making a big impact with a large, $70,000 or $80,000 or $100,000 gift.

We’ve been doing this for 10 years, and we’re proud of it. It’s remarkable and it always astonishes us to hear that we have made such a huge impact in the system of care for women in Bergen County. The question before us now is, how do we make sure that our grant making addresses the needs of this community for the next 10 years? We own this circle. It’s our money. Let’s dream about new ways to do what we do best and look back 10 years from now and say, “Can you believe it?”