Staff Blog

This is a space where Foundation staff share their thoughts and musings on giving and community:

A New Model for Giving: What It Means and How It Works

Posted by: Dan Smith on 6/27/2018

Almost two years ago, I joined the Vermont Community Foundation. When I started, I asked the organization to embark on a journey together, which would be marked by creativity, ingenuity, and a willingness to explore. In the ensuing year, we asked questions about the role of philanthropy in our state, challenged our assumptions, and retooled our mission and vision. The Foundation has adopted as an organizing principle that where you’re born or whether your parents went to college shouldn’t define the terms and boundaries of your future. We have committed ourselves to ending the opportunity gap in Vermont. 

In my travels across the state, I have the good fortune to visit with fundholders, outside donors, grantees, community leaders, and many other Vermonters. In those conversations, I’ve heard abundant support for our focus on closing the opportunity gap. People recognize the pervasiveness of the challenges facing our kids.  Economic immobility is a slippery thing to wrestle with, but once people see it in their community, it is hard not to recognize the corrosive lack of hope it engenders. That’s why so many partners haved embraced these goals and values and want to be part of advancing this mission together with us. 

Yet this is also a period of change, and with change comes uncertainty and questions. At the beginning of this year, we transformed our previous model of discretionary grantmaking. While we continue to run competitive grant rounds, we also moved some aspects of our model away from competitive grant rounds in favor of deep community engagement that seeks new opportunities for impact. Competitive grant rounds are one of, but not the only, tool for identifying partners in every corner of the state who can help us make the biggest impact in the communities that need it most. 

We’re making great progress, but I also recognize that we need to do a better job of explaining to our partners what this new model means for us─and for them. Our partners and potential grantees have good questions about what this change means. Here are some answers. 

A New Model of Grantmaking

The fundamental difference between our previous giving model and our current model is an emphasis on community engagement. In the past, our giving model was based on competitive grant rounds: we sent out a request for proposals, established a deadline for receiving the proposals, assessed the relative merits of the proposals, and awarded grants based on the relative merits.

That process worked well in some respects. It created predictability for our grantees and for our grantmaking team, and it surfaced proposals that the Foundation was proud to support. We will continue using this process for some of our discretionary giving, where appropriate, and as a tool for listening, learning, and fostering community energy  and capacity in the nonprofit sector. 

However, in light of our deeper focus on community engagement, the old model of exclusively relying on competitive grantmaking fell short. Remember our goal of looking for partners in every corner of the state who are working to close the opportunity gap? We can’t achieve that goal by limiting ourselves to sitting in Middlebury and reading grant applications; we need to do a better job of immersing ourselves in communities and listening intently to the way these challenges play out. Conversations about closing the opportunity gap are taking place across the state. Our hope is for the Foundation to be active listeners in those conversations as they occur so that the perspectives of a community itself are among the chief drivers of our strategic grantmaking.

How Can Your Organization Engage in Our New Process?

For grantseekers, our realigned grantmaking process opens up new, different opportunities, but it might also be confusing. On the one hand, we’re saying that part of our process has changed and that we’re moving away from a competitive grantmaking process. But on the other hand, we are still─and will continue for the future─making grants through competitive processes with deadlines and applications.

So what’s changed? A lot. While we do still have a competitive process, we are asking grantseekers to think broadly on how their work can help us close the opportunity gap in Vermont. We’re asking for more community-based engagement with an eye to understanding how an organization’s work fits into a regional or local strategy around the opportunity gap. And, we’re asking grantseekers to be proactive in coming to us with ideas, rather than just responding to the deadlines and requests for proposals.

On the most practical level, it means that there are three main ways for grantseekers to seek funding from the Vermont Community Foundation.

  • Do Good Work - We’ll Hear About It
    As the orientation of our grantmaking shifts to deep community engagement, we will spend more and more time embedded in communities, listening for where a potential partner is doing inspiring work. We talk and work with community members across the state and we learn about organizations that are making a difference. If you’re good at what you do, and you’re amplifying that work in your communities, we’re going to hear about it. One particularly effective way to amplify your impact is to find ways to work effectively with other organizations. So keep up your visibility, partner well, communicate loudly and frequently about what you’re doing, and make your impact easy to recognize.

    One way to increase your visibility is by participating in community forums like the ones hosted throughout Vermont by our partners like the Vermont Council on Rural Development. VCRD and other organizations are bringing community members together to assess needs and to imagine a different set of circumstances. We’ll be at those forums, and we’ll be looking for partners who fit with our mission and vision for Vermont.

    So, do good work. Work well with others. We’ll find you.

  • Letters of Introduction
    An important part of our new grantmaking model is a Letter of Introduction (LOI) from interested organizations. An LOI is an opportunity to raise your hand, so to speak, and is meant to provide an opening for further evaluation and conversation as a way of complementing what we’re learning as we spend time in different communities. How does the work your organization is doing fit with the Community Foundation’s commitment to closing the opportunity gap? The LOI is not tied to a specific funding opportunity, but may lead to funding if the organization’s work is a good fit. We are continuously evaluating LOIs and making funding recommendations based on the strength of the LOIs and the extent to which they align with our opportunity gap goals. Even where that connection is tenuous, if we recognize a regional or impact area intersection with the priorities of any donors and the LOI offers us something to share with them, we will have a discussion.

    LOIs are a big deal to us and a critical tool to understand your organization. We read each LOI thoughtfully and carefully, with an open mind to new ideas and without pre-established criteria. Once it is submitted, you are on our radar. If you have good ideas and are doing impactful work in your community to close the opportunity gap, we want to hear about it.

  • Apply For Competitive Grants
    Finally, get engaged with us the old-fashioned way: by applying for competitive grants. There is still a vital role for competitive grantmaking in our model, and we request proposals throughout the year for projects that can help us close the opportunity gap.

    Here’s the thing: even if you don’t win a round of funding in our competitive grantmaking process, you will put yourself on our radar through your application. A Letter of Introduction is essential; a well-executed application─even one that isn’t accepted for funding─is a way to complement your LOI and make your work visible to us.

Join Us

Taken together, these approaches to grantmaking add up to a new model of philanthropy for the Vermont Community Foundation. It reflects our commitment to approaching this work with curiosity, creativity, and a willingness to explore. We are growing, and with that comes a different scope of vision. When we were smaller in size and scale, we could focus on the broad goal of doing good things. As we have grown, we’ve moved from a focus on doing good things into a phase where we have challenged ourselves to make a big difference for Vermont. That compels us to think of fresh ideas and new models for grantmaking.

Philanthropy at a community foundation is unique. We help make a difference not just with grants, but with insight, support, connection, and learning in a way that no one else does. Advancing that work is a journey. We invite you to join us.

For more information about our 2018 discretionary grantmaking, please read the Opportunity Gap Grant Programs information on this page.
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