How We Learn: 7 Ways We Keep Up with the Fields We Fund

We often liken our grant making to investing. We seek a social return (rather than a financial one) and this differentiates us from mainstream investors. However the rest of the process is similar. We must find good ideas and organizations in which to invest. We frequently ask ourselves how we can be better informed and more knowledgeable about the areas that we fund. We have a number of sources. All of them are necessary. None are sufficient.Learning.jpg

  1. Institutional expertise

We try to attract and recruit Board members who have specialized knowledge. Our mission is education and we have several career educators on our Board and some are experts in the specialized areas of our grant making for people with disabilities, Indigenous Peoples and the underserved. We employ consultants with expertise in the area that we fund. The Foundation also retains specialized knowledge from 25 years of experience as a grant maker in education.

  1. Continuing education

We regularly attend meetings and conferences, review literature and seek out and listen to experts in the field of philanthropy and education. We belong to or follow organizations such as The Center for Effective Philanthropy, Florida Philanthropic Network, Exponent Philanthropy and Grantmakers for Education, all of which provide us with rich and excellent content. We discuss and write about what we have learned.

  1. Listening to grantees and prospective grantees

We ask people what they need rather than tell them. A decision to make a grant to an organization implies trust and alignment of interest. Our grantees actually do the work of serving students. It follows that they are usually in a better position to understand what is needed than we are.

  1. Building and valuing relationships

We view the philanthropic enterprise as a partnership and we employ a personal and businesslike approach. We go to see our grantees and their students and spend time 2016-04-13_MFOS_graduation_Reception-1387.jpgtalking to them. We tend to make multi-year grants, which allows us to know them better. We negotiate written grant agreements, which spell out the Foundation’s obligations in addition to those of its grantees. All of this is intended to level the playing field between the Foundation and its grantees and to engender mutual respect and trust.

  1. Evaluation

Useful evaluation is elusive and definitive evaluation is a myth. But try we must. We ask grantees to report annually and to link their results to Foundation mission and strategy. Grants are frequently reviewed by third party evaluators. Each evaluation is unique and we use different third party evaluators depending upon the subject. For example, we use First Nations Development Institute when evaluating grants serving Indigenous Peoples. Sometimes an evaluation is performed by our grantee under the guidance of a third party. For example in 2014 An Ounce of Prevention Fund of Florida designed and oversaw a process for The Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind to conduct an evaluation of each of its programs funded by the Foundation. Evaluation is meant to help our grantees to improve and promote their programs and to enable us to gauge the effectiveness of our grant making and inform future grant decisions.

  1. Communication

We use a comprehensive website and social media to reach grantees and potential grantees. Our Facebook (please visit and like us if you haven’t already) highlights grantee news and achievements and the news and achievements of others in the field. We alsodavid flink
produce a newsletter and a blog, in which we advocate for the Foundation’s mission and
discuss our grantees’ work and the issues of the day. Foundation grantees such as Eye to Eye and the American Indian College Fund are regulars on Facebook and have been published on our Blog. By facilitating and engaging in these conversations we increase our connection to the field and therefore our knowledge of it.

  1. We encourage and entertain unsolicited grant inquiries

We learn a lot from grant inquiries and proposals, even those that we do not accept. Regularly we are pleasantly surprised to learn of an organization that is doing great work in an area within the Foundation’s mission and strategy. For example, Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech, Providence St. Mel School and the Statler Center at the Olmsted Center for Sight all do excellent work that is closely aligned with the Foundation’s mission and strategies. Each of them came to be Foundation grantees through unsolicited inquiries.

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