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No Moat Philanthropy Part 5: The Downsides & Why It’s Worth It
October 6, 2017

Jen Ford Reedy is President of the Bush Foundation. On the occasion of her fifth anniversary leading the foundation, she reflects on efforts undertaken to make the Bush Foundation more permeable. Because the strategies and tactics she shares can be inspiring and helpful for any grantmaker exploring ways to open up their grantmaking, we have devoted this blog space all week to the series. This is the final post in the five-part series.

Reedyjenniferford-croppedEverything we do is a trade-off. Spending time and money on the activities described in this No Moat Philanthropy series means time and money not invested in something else. Here are some of the downsides of the trade-offs we have made:

It takes some operating expense.  It requires real staff time for us to do office hours in western North Dakota and to reformat grant reports to be shared online and to do every other activity described in these posts. We believe there is lots of opportunity to advance our mission in the “how” of grantmaking and weigh that as an investment alongside others. In our case, we did not have an increase in staff costs or operating expenses as we made this shift. We just reprioritized.

It can be bureaucratic.  Having open programs and having community members involved in processes requires some structure and rules and standardization in a way that can feel stifling. Philanthropy feels more artful and inspired when you can be creative and move quickly. To be equitably accessible and to improve the chance we are funding the best idea, we are committed to making this trade-off. (While, of course, being as artful and creative as possible within the structures we set!)

“We believe our effectiveness is fundamentally tied to our ability to influence and be influenced by others.”

Lots of applications means lots of turndowns.  Conventional wisdom in philanthropy is to try to limit unsuccessful applications – reducing the amount of effort nonprofits invest with no return. This is an important consideration and it is why many foundations have very narrow guidelines and/or don’t accept unsolicited proposals. The flip side, however, is that the more we all narrow our funding apertures, the harder it is for organizations to get great ideas funded. We’ve decided to run counter to conventional wisdom and give lots of organizations a shot at funding. Of course, we don’t want to waste their time. We have three strategies to try to mitigate this waste: (1) through our hotlines we try to coach unlikely grantees out of the process. (In our experience, nonprofits will often apply anyway – which suggests to us that they value having a shot – even if the odds are long.); (2) we try to make the process worth it. Our surveys suggest that applicants who do the programs with the biggest pools get something out of the process – (and we learn from the applicants even if they are not funded.); and (3) we try to make the first stage of our processes as simple as possible so folks are not wasting too much effort.

Relationships are hard!  Thinking of ourselves as being in relationship with people in the region is not simple. There are lots of them! And it can be super frustrating if a Bush staff member gives advice on a hotline that seems to be contradicted by the feedback when an application is declined. We’ve had to invest money and time in developing our CRM capacity and habits. We have a lot more work to do on this front. We will never not have a lot more work to do on our intercultural competence and our efforts to practice inclusion. Truly including people with different perspectives can make decisions harder as it makes decisions better.  The early returns on our efforts have been encouraging and we are committed to continuing the work to be more fully in relationship with more people in the communities we serve.

Conclusion

Overall, we believe a No Moat Philanthropy approach has made us more effective. When we are intentional about having impact through how we do our work — building relationships, inspiring action, spreading optimism — then we increase the positive impact we have in the region.

We believe our effectiveness is fundamentally tied to our ability to influence and be influenced by others, which demands trust, reciprocity and a genuine openness to the ideas of others. It requires understanding perspectives other than our own. It requires permeability.

While we arrived at this approach largely because of our place-based sensibility and strategic orientation toward people (see learning paper: “The Bush Approach”), the same principles can apply to a national or international foundation focused on particular issues. The definition of community is different, but the potential value of permeability within that community is the same.

--Jen Ford Reedy

Comments

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This series, and what Bush Foundation is doing, are really great. Foundations chronically underestimate how mysterious and foreboding they can seem to the outside world. A good example is Jennifer's own warning about "brick-wall" websites, when the challenge is even more daunting: more than 90% of foundations have no website at all! And I'm not convinced that Bush's "no moat" way of doing things is necessarily any more bureaucratic than the more closed processes of many foundations. Foundation processes tend to be slow for all sorts of reasons that include opacity, inertia, lack of autonomy in decision-making and, yes, sometimes bureaucracy. I wouldn’t be surprised if Bush acts as quickly or quicker than many foundations with very different approaches.

This five part series serves as an excellent primer for foundations that want to challenge the traditional culture of philanthropy and create the kind of partnerships that reach deep into their own institutions and far into the outside world.

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