Results and relationships key, funders say

Jennifer Tolle Whiteside
Jennifer Tolle Whiteside

Ret Boney

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — As funders begin climbing out of the recession, they are urging would-be grantees to renew their commitment to building relationships and showing results.

As assets slid and needs grew over the past two years, local foundations found themselves making difficult choices and learning lessons they will carry forward as the economy improves, panelists told an audience of about 140 nonprofit fundraisers at a conference held May 24 in Research Triangle Park.

Hosted by the Triangle chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, the Conversations with Funders event featured sessions with representatives of community foundations, private foundations, corporate funders and emerging philanthropists.

While the recession hurt assets and dampened gifts to community foundations — hybrid organizations that both raise money and award grants — a silver lining was a shift in emphasis from size to impact, said Jennifer Tolle Whiteside, president and CEO of the North Carolina Community Foundation.

“During this transition, the conversation has moved away from ‘what’s your asset size,'” said Tolle Whiteside, whose foundation manages about 1,050 funds across 60 local affiliates totaling $140 million in assets. “Now the question is ‘what are your impacts,’ and ‘what are the ways you’re growing your community foundation to have strategic advances?”

Results are gaining importance for corporate funders as well, where phrases like “business case” pop up when a company’s bottom line is under pressure.

“The biggest change we’ve made is that we’re looking at results a lot closer,” said Marty Clayton, community relations manager for Progress Energy. “It’s been a lot tougher to write those checks. We’re looking at the organization and the results that organization is achieving.”

With needs across the state outpacing funders’ resources, that focus on stretching dollars goes beyond corporate foundations.

The Golden LEAF Foundation, for example, wants to know that its investments are paying off, said Mark Sorrells, the organization’s senior vice president.

As an organization charged with jump-starting the economies in the state’s poorest counties, the needs are endless.

“As you’re beginning to approach foundations, think about the outcomes, not the activities,” he said. “We invest in impacts, not activities. It’s about moving the needle – it’s about making a difference.”

Virtually across the board, panelists urged grantees to be intentional about building relationships with area funders.

Those close ties allows funders to move more quickly when critical needs arise, said Danielle Breslin, vice president of operations at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation, which works to improve the health and well-being of the state’s residents.

“We’re been able to make some changes and respond to organizations more quickly – mostly with organizations we already knew,” she said.

For example, the foundation was able to infuse an additional $2 million into the North Carolina Association of Free Clinics to prop up those clinics and citizens most affected by the downturn.

“You can’t expect a funder to do things like that if you don’t have a relationship with them,” Breslin said.

Laura Hudson Hamre, senior manager of community relations for Fidelity Investments, said one of the best ways to build a relationship with her company is through its employees.

“It’s almost like a courtship,” she said of employees’ community-service efforts. “Funding doesn’t typically start immediately – it usually starts with volunteering.”

With a focus on helping disadvantaged youth find the path to success, many of the company’s 2,400 employees are involved through tutoring and mentoring.

That employee-generated enthusiasm and introduction is powerful for the Redwoods Groups as well, said Kevin Trapani, president and CEO of the company, which insures YMCAs and other nonprofits and requires its employees to spend 40 hours of business time in community service each year.

With that much time spent volunteering, every employee has the opportunity to become involved and excited about a nonprofit, and then can bring that enthusiasm to other Redwoods employees, Trapani said.

“They have a right and an obligation to report that internally and light us up,” he said. “The best engagements are the ones led by folks who aren’t specifically our philanthropy folks.”

And that focus on relationships and results focus could be converging in some of the region’s emerging philanthropists.

Some of the younger fund-holders at the Triangle Community Foundation are looking for an increased level of involvement with the nonprofits they fund, said Andrea Bazan, president of foundation, which manages 750 funds and awarded $15 million in grants last year.

“I’m starting to see younger fund-holders who want their dollars to have an impact,” she said. “They’re asking more pointed questions. The positive to that is they become a loyal fan and an ambassador to the community.”

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