Would Gandhi, Chavez or King Receive a Grant Today? Movement Building as a Grantmaking Strategy

Would Gandhi, Chavez or King Receive a Grant Today? Movement Building as a Grantmaking Strategy


by Edgar Villanueva, Program Officer, Marguerite Casey Foundation

At the GEO 2014 National Conference, I co-led a session titled “Would Gandhi, Chavez or King Receive a Grant Today? Benefits and Limits of Measuring Philanthropic Impact."  We asked participants to imagine Dr. King completing a 17-page grant proposal, or Gandhi and Chavez hosting foundation site visits. What kind of relationships would these leaders of momentous change have wanted with foundations, we asked, and how they would have liked foundations to champion leaders?

Although evaluation of grantees is necessary and useful, evaluation is not a goal but rather another way in which funders can help grantees and communities progress and develop leaders for the next great social movements.

How can funders be sure we are investing in the development of the next Gandhi, Chavez or King? And how can funders and their program officers create an environment in which grantees give honest feedback (without fear of losing their funding) and be true partners with their funders in creating change?

During the session, two of the possible responses to those questions were:

  1. Consider movement building as a grantmaking strategy.
  2. Create a trusting partnership between the grantee and the funder’s representative, the program officer.

Movement Building as a Grantmaking Strategy

Since its inception, Marguerite Casey Foundation has employed grantmaking (through multiyear, general operating support and support for grantee networks) and non-grantmaking strategies (regional and national convenings) to support movement building as a social change vehicle. The foundation’s commitment to supporting movement building is underscored by the fact that the foundation measures its grantees’ progress in terms of movement building parameters.

To mitigate the risks inherent in its approach to grantmaking, Marguerite Casey Foundation does not accept unsolicited proposals. Instead, the foundation invites applications from potential grantees after careful vetting. In the first point of contact with a potential grantee, the program officer asks the organization for four to five movement-building objectives it hopes to achieve over the proposed grant period. The program officer then works with the organization to refine those goals and to make sure they are actionable. 

Through annual grantee surveys, a grantee’s progress is measured using five indicators of movement building: organizational capacity, leadership development, network development, policy impact and family engagement. The foundation also provides a report of policy wins to the board of directors each quarter – proof that its investments are making change possible.

Relationship Building for Impact

Marguerite Casey Foundation believes in the power of strong relationships to effect community change, so it strives to develop a long-term relationship with its grantees, both in vision and in funding.

Because the foundation does not focus on specific programmatic areas, the long-term funder-grantee relationship of is built on a shared commitment to family-led movement building rather than on a shared issue. That approach to grantmaking assumes and requires a level of mutual trust between the grantee and the foundation, and the program officer is the direct link in establishing that trust.

The program officer is seen as a resource person, valued in ways well beyond grant funding, and is viewed as someone who is helpful in achieving better outcomes with grantee partners and within the broader social justice movement.

At Marguerite Casey Foundation, a great deal of a program officer’s time and energy is spent communicating the foundation’s priorities and learning from the experiences of low-income families and communities in his or her region. The program officer strives to develop trusting relationships with current and prospective grantees, community leaders and vital partners to actualize the foundation’s mission of strengthening the voice of low-income families so that they can mobilize their communities to advocate on their own behalf.

The program officer’s assessment of a grantee’s progress in movement building is grantee-friendly, with goals and the evaluation process created in collaboration with the grantee. Consider the intent of evaluations and the language used in asking for information. An effective program officer, for example, avoids “policing” grantees and is aware of power dynamics. When grantees spend less time “jumping through hoops,” they have more time to do what they do best – engaging their communities, developing community leaders and networking with like-minded organizations to influence local, state and national policy.

Now, more than ever, foundations – regardless of size, focus and approach – need to maximize the impact of their grant dollars by supporting movement building and investing in helping communities develop dynamic social movement leaders. For example, Marguerite Casey Foundation joined the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy’s “Philanthropy’s Promise” initiative, which commits its grant dollars to underserved populations and to systemic change efforts through advocacy, community involvement and civic engagement, because it wants to know that the foundation’s grants and non-grantmaking efforts are making a difference in people’s lives and in communities and shaping a more equitable, just and democratic world.

Although change in philanthropy practices may seem daunting, the road is made by walking it. Like Gandhi, Chavez and King, funders must set out into new territory and take risks. We can’t be stopped by fear; or by self-imposed restrictions or lack of urgency; or by being out of touch with what’s really happening in underserved communities. Foundations and their program officers must know the communities, recognize the communities and the organizations that serve those communities as the experts on what support is needed, and see themselves as partners with their grantees.

Thanks to my GEO session co-panelists, Christine Reeves and the Rev. Zachary Hoover, and to Marguerite Casey Foundation colleague Will Cordery for contributing to this post.