Last April, after Ford received the results from the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP) Grantee Perception Report, we made a commitment to further strengthen our relationships with grantees.

Over this past year, we have continued to advance our efforts on that front. In 2018, we held a series of conversations where our partner organizations had the opportunity to hear directly from Ford’s leadership about our strategies, and have their questions answered.

Based on feedback from our grantees, the foundation’s Office of Strategy and Learning (OSL) has also begun a number of initiatives to help improve our impact as grantmakers, promote transparency about what we are learning, and improve our responsiveness.

Here we describe some of the specific changes we have been working on, which will continue to be a focus throughout 2019.

Investing in program officer training and development

Grantees told us that we could be more supportive and responsive. We are identifying best practices, engaging in peer-to-peer learning, and building program officer capacity where needed. We have also been piloting a new training program and resource library for Ford staff, called FunderMentals, that exposes new and more seasoned program officers to the soft and hard skills they need to be effective grantmakers. And in March, the Office of the Executive Vice President will host an academy for program officers to reconnect and recommit to a shared set of best grant making practices.

Understanding and responding to organizational health needs

We recognize that to make progress on social justice, the organizations working to advance it need to thrive. Our new proposal process, launched in 2018, includes questions that are intended to generate dialogue on organizational structure and health. For example, we ask for audited financial statements so we can better understand the business models and financial needs of organizations seeking funding, and a revamped diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) section is intended to help us understand an organization’s efforts to ensure diversity and inclusion. These new measures are designed to encourage transparent conversations and identify places where we, as a funder, can be supportive. Getting a real understanding of these priorities takes trust and strong relationships. And that kind of relationship takes time to build.

Making the time to focus on what matters

CEP analysis suggests that one of the best ways to strengthen funder-grantee relationships is to ensure that program staff are able to spend more time with the organizations they support. To that end, in 2018 we worked with CEP to conduct a study of how program officers allocate their time, and learned that internal obligations can make it challenging to focus on the fields they support. Based on these findings, program officers are developing a set of recommendations about how they might rebalance their time in order to prioritize learning from our partners and building stronger partnerships. This rebalancing effort is ongoing and we expect our partners to begin to see a difference (and more of their program officer!) in 2019.

Responsibly managing program officer transitions and strategic shifts

Change is a hard but necessary part of being a strategic philanthropy. It is likely during an organization’s relationship with Ford that they will experience a program officer transition (our program officers are on time-bound contracts, up to 8 years) and/or a shift in strategic priorities. We haven’t consistently and effectively managed these changes in the past, and recognize that this can have a destabilizing effect on the fields and organizations we support. As part of improving our craft, we have rolled out a transition plan that details how grantee relationships should be managed during a program officer transition or strategic shift.

Our new strategies have been designed with four-year outcomes, so program officers and grantees can better anticipate the moments when we will be assessing our strategies and making adjustments. Combined with our ongoing emphasis on organizational health, this will hopefully allow us to be better prepared, so that our partners are in a stronger and more sustainable place, and better equipped to respond to change.

Sharing what we’re learning

True partnership is a two-way street: It’s not enough for us to know about what our grantees are learning along the way; it’s important for them to understand what we are learning, too. In 2019, we are committed to sharing more about what and how we are learning. We are in the process of adding to our learning page on Ford’s website, where we will share program updates, reflections, reports, and evaluations. Please keep a look-out here, and let us know what you think!

As we continue to learn and improve, we welcome your ideas and suggestions. What makes an effective partner and funder? Beyond grant dollars, what kind of support does your organization look for from a funder? Leave us a comment below. We look forward to continuing this conversation.