By Merrill Wolf
In 2004, in anticipation of vast acres becoming available for development as a result of the federal tobacco buyout, several North Carolina grantmakers jointly funded a direct-mail campaign to educate landowners about conservation.
And based on concerns among state grantmakers about public-school funding, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem and Burroughs Wellcome Fund in Research Triangle Park are supporting an education benchmarking study being carried out in part by the Raleigh-based Public School Forum of North Carolina.
The environmental and education initiatives both grew out of working groups organized through the North Carolina Network of Grantmakers, a four-year old organization that has enlisted 66 members, including corporate, private and community foundations.
While its main focus so far has been on sharing information and ideas, the network has produced some collaborative efforts like the environmental initiative and the education study.
“I’m really glad this is getting off the ground,” says John Dornan, president and executive director of the Public School Forum.
“It’s very helpful not only for foundations,” he says, “but also for grantees when there is a better, more serious level of discussion about what’s a good investment, what’s a bad investment, and some attempt to…create a critical mass of foundations and government and nonprofits working in the same direction.”
The education study, expected to be completed this fall, aims to create a long-range plan that government and foundations can “use as a road map to do the very best with their dollars,” Dornan says.
The study, which will include a look at North Carolina schools’ international competitiveness, is a direct outgrowth of the network’s education working group, he says.
Bobbi Hapgood, executive director of the grantmakers network, says the organization also offers members tools and resources that reflect the latest thinking about the process of philanthropy.
Its structure helps innovative approaches spread quickly and effectively, she says.
In recent years, for example, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation has made a significant investment in outcome-based funding, including revamping its application process and the questions it asks potential grantees.
The foundation was so enthusiastic about this new approach to grantmaking and evaluation that, to spread the word, it sponsored the participation of an acknowledged guru of the concept at a network meeting.
As a result, about 10 foundations changed the way they evaluate impact, Hapgood says, illustrating how “one foundation can have a best practice and it is shared almost instantaneously” through the network.
Danielle Breslin, vice president of operations for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, says her organization’s new focus on outcome-based funding is a direct outcome of participation in the network.
She says she is optimistic about plans to discuss development of a common application incorporating the approach.
“The network has been very valuable to our foundation and to me on a personal level in the professional aspect of getting to meet and interact with other grantmakers within North Carolina,” says Breslin, who recently began a three-year term on the network’s board.
The network, she says, is maturing to the point where members can begin having more conversations about strategic collaborations.
“So many times funders tell nonprofits not to duplicate efforts, and we…are not always the best at doing it ourselves,” Breslin says. “Here’s a built-in forum for us to be doing those kinds of things and having those kinds of conversations.”
Hapgood agrees that a major advantage of membership is the chance to connect with other grantmakers.
“Some of the greatest benefit comes from the relationships and not feeling isolated,” she says. “It’s amazing the doors it opens up for funders to talk to each other.”
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