Why One Foundation Believes Writing Checks is Not Enough

Toward the end of December, I saw the Case Foundation do something I haven’t seen before from another foundation. It was straightforward and helpful. And so simple. Under the heading “Great Nonprofits That Should Make Your Holiday List”, Michael Smith, V.P. Social Innovation (pictured left), wrote a blog post listing 27 of the foundation’s grantees. The post contained a description of each and, most important, a button to donate directly to them. It was a simple gesture to help organizations Case is working with in their end-of-year campaigns for funding, and an acknowledgement that foundations can and should be helping their grantees in more ways than the grant process. I spent some time on the phone with Smith to learn the story behind the blog post and list.  

I’m curious what the thinking was behind that blog post?
The blog post was an extension of a lot of the work we’ve done offline for years. We do funders convenings where we bring people together around organizations that we funded or organizations we are interested in or maybe organizations that are in the online engagement space. We try to connect the dots from people that are interested in issues [to] organizations that can help fulfill their interests. So, that was kind of a natural progression from what we do anyway. The first time that we actually tried something like that was two years ago when we did our first Guide to Good Giving on the Web site, where we [listed] ways that you can give back. We had a rather lengthy list of organizations that you should be interested in. It was just like this year’s list, starting with organizations that we’ve written checks to or organizations that we’ve partnered with or that we know well. We figure we do quite a bit of due diligence so why not share the love and save folks some time.

I don’t see a lot of other foundations doing this, but it seems like it should naturally flow out of the work that you are doing – finding ways for the rest of the world to help out these same organizations you are working with.
Absolutely. I’m not sure what the hesitation would be on the part of other foundations. At this foundation we are not set up in departments or silos. We don’t have an education program officer and an early childhood program officer and a civic engagement officer. We have a program team that works with various functional staff in marketing and communications and technology. I wonder—since we don’t have those different departments that would have to come together to create a list and then pass it up the chain—that it might [be] a little easier for us. We’re all working together on similar projects and have a little less bureaucracy than maybe some of the larger foundations.

I think maybe it is also a different mindset. A lot of foundations are not thinking about ways that they can help their grantees beside making grants. In today’s world, where endowments have been shrinking and there is less money going out the door as grants, it seems like foundations should be thinking that way.
We recognize that 80 percent of giving in this country comes from individuals. We spend a lot of time thinking about how can we catalyze and mobilize that 80 percent to really get inspired and understand the causes that we care about. Ultimately, they can do a whole lot more than the Case Foundation and even if the Case Foundation came together with the largest foundations in the country. [When] I look at what is happening in Haiti right now my socks are knocked off by the amount of money that has been raised through [texting] the Red Cross. When you think about how you can mobilize folks that are just out there and just want to be asked, I think it is almost a responsibility of ours to try to help out.

Maybe one other thing that might be holding other foundations back from doing this is the logistics of it, so I’m curious about what it took for you to put this list together.
It was so easy. Most of the organizations on that list were our grantees so we have information already on file for them. We have summaries of programs. Thankfully now, through Causes on Facebook and Network for Good, you just go and grab their “Donate Now” button. People know it is a secure transaction. It is not like you have to go to every organization’s Web site and link people there. You can just go to one partner or, in this case, two.

Let’s start with the list. Is this every one of your grantees?
It is not every person that we wrote a check to you last year. We’re a family foundation. We still do some small one-off things. It is those organizations that we spent significant time with or have great faith in or think are incredibly innovative and doing good work. It’s a good majority of them.

Did you have some specific criteria for who was going to get on that list?
No. I think that is one of the things about being smaller. Me and my colleague Kari [Dunn Saratovsky] on the West Coast put our heads together and said, “Is this right?” We agreed and went forward. We did not set up a rubric or anything like that of who would make the list.

I can imagine that would be a stumbling block for some foundations who might wind up in a big, bureaucratic process of deciding who to put on the list—a process that would scare people away from following through.
You could list everyone. There is absolutely no harm in doing that. Or in the larger foundations you can trust your program officers, let your program officers come up with those lists.

Any sense of how well this worked? Are you doing any kind of tracking?
I haven’t done the full report on it yet, but I do know basic analytics on how blog posts do. We did this whole blog series on holiday giving for good at the end of last year. This was one of the top three posts.

Did you hear from any organizations on the list?
We did. No one has said to me yet, “Thank you. We made x number of dollars from your blog post.” It would be hard for them to track that, too. We could have set it up where we had tracking codes from organizations, but it was not that strategic. Perhaps a little bit of a missed opportunity now that we are talking about it. We heard from several organizations that were just delighted that we took the time and made the effort to do that.

Any lessons learned from this process to share with other foundations?
Take the time, if you are going to do this, which we didn’t do as well with this year—we’ve done it better in past years—to really work with the organizations to figure out how they can take advantage of it. It means a lot for nonprofit organizations to make it on these sorts of lists. Give them an opportunity as they are doing their year-end giving campaign to say, “Case Foundation featured us.” [It’s] a further piece of validation when they’re going out to solicit funds from others. I think you can have a bigger bang if you take the time to make sure that people are going to see it. As with any social media, any blog post, writing it may well be the easiest part. You have to make sure people are reading it and that it’s making its way into conversation in communities that already exist and that are robust.

Any other lessons?
None I can think of. Our motto is, “Try it and see if it works. If it doesn’t, don’t do it again.” That is the great thing about working for a CEO who started her career in the online services industry in the days before people knew what online was, and for a chairman like Steve [Case]. Their success came from breaking a whole lot of eggs that didn’t work, so they certainly understand the value of taking some risks and experimenting.

Are you going to do this again next year?
I’m pretty sure. If you look at our blog over the course of the year you’ll see that we have guest posts from our grantees. We convene them. We do a lot of work to shine a big spotlight on our grantees and sometimes organizations that maybe we didn’t even fund or we gave a small grant to that we think are interesting. We see a whole lot of [organizations through the funding process]. Let’s shine a bright light on the ones that we think are promising.

With the idea that you are helping them in more ways than just handing them a grant?
It’s not enough. We can never write them a check that is big enough to solve their funding needs, especially in this economy.

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