Using Organizational Strategy to Inform Philanthropic Effectiveness

  • By Kyle Rinne-Meyers, April 13, 2023

Over the last 25 years, the GEO community has led the field of philanthropy in exploring effective grantmaking. While our collective understanding of what “effective” means is always evolving, so are the ways that we help transform philanthropic culture and practice. The GEO staff and board updated our mission and vision statements in 2020, placing thriving nonprofits and communities at the center for our work. As we celebrate our 25th anniversary in 2023, we are embarking on new efforts to develop a multi-year strategic direction that will help translate our mission and vision into our day-to-day practice, leveraging the contributions made by the GEO community to inform the change that we’re all trying to see.

While strategies can look different for different organizations, GEO’s strategy work will consistent of:

  • Multi-year strategic direction that articulates our program goals and action plans over the next few years;
  • Organizational values that align with our mission and vision, and reflect how we can aspire to show up in our work, both internally and externally;
  • Business model that helps us align our revenue and expenses in service of our strategy; and an
  • Impact model that further clarifies the change we’re seeking to create in our sector and how we will help facilitate that change.

At GEO, we know that change doesn’t happen in isolation; as such, we engaged our members, partners and nonprofit leaders to help articulate how we can contribute to the broader ecosystem of changemakers in philanthropy. Through deep conversation and listening, we heard that:

  • Nonprofits and communities feel that their efforts to advance racial justice are stagnating, in part due to the continued lack of trust funders demonstrate towards BIPOC-led organizations and movements.
  • There is still a strong need for an intersectional approach to advance equity within philanthropy.
  • Grantmakers are struggling with building authentic relationships with nonprofits and communities.
  • White fragility often gets in the way of implementing racially equitable practices.
  • Grantmakers are unclear on what it means to implement effective culture and practice within their work, and how to be most in service of thriving nonprofits and communities.
  • Our stakeholders are looking to GEO to inspire new ideas or approaches, provide a sense of community for likeminded grantmakers and provide resources that can help philanthropic professionals create change.

We’re especially excited to be partnering in this work with Frontline Solutions, a Black-owned consulting firm dedicated to making the world more just for all. I hope you’ll join us at GEO’s 2023 Learning Conference to learn more about our progress.

Effectiveness and Organizational Strategy

In Emergent Strategy, adrienne maree brown offers a definition of strategy as a “plan of action towards a goal”. For grantmakers, it is important to distinguish between developing an institutional strategy, which can serve to help clarify and deepen your impact, and strategic philanthropy, which advances a deep imbalance of power and perpetuates systemic inequities. As Vu Le has written, philanthropic strategies are most effective when they “closely align with and take lead from community, are grounded in equity, and (are from organizations) that have staff and board members who have lived experience with injustice.”

This year, GEO is celebrating its 25th anniversary by exploring what effective grantmaking practice looks like in service of nonprofits and communities. For grantmakers concerned with being effective in our work, strategic planning offers us an opportunity to get on the balcony and reflect on our purpose as an organization and field, our place within a broader social change ecosystem, ground our evaluation and learning and determine the path forward that will lead to the greatest impact.

Get on the balcony

For many organizations, a strategic planning process is a chance where the entire organization can “get on the balcony” and step outside the constant motion of daily work to gain a broader perspective. Strategy processes can serve as a sort of institutional mindfulness, where you can observe how things are going and determine opportunities for change in a new direction. And we know that thoughtful and intentional efforts – hallmarks of effectiveness – are necessary to make real change. To that end, strategies help us understand and articulate what we are trying to do.

Understand your place in the broader social change ecosystem

A strategy process is an opportunity for grantmakers to reflect on their vision for the world they want to create, and how they can best create it. Deepa Iyer’s Social Change Ecosystem Map is a tool that can help individuals and organizations to clarify the role they play in advancing social change. For grantmakers, it can help facilitate important questions on how we contribute and partner to wider change, in partnership with others. Do we want to play the role of a frontline responder, organizing resources and people around community crises? Do we want to play the role of a builder, organizing ideas, practices and people in service of a collective vision? Do we want to use our positions of relative power and privilege to be a disruptor, taking uncomfortable actions to shake up the status quo? Effectiveness requires that we move one step past the “what” and consider “how” we are shaking the status quo.

Grounding your evaluation and learning

In the FSG guide Building a Strategic Learning and Evaluation System for Your Organization, Hallie Preskill and Katelyn Mack add that “without a clear understanding of the organization’s strategy, evaluation activities easily become scattershot and disconnected – making it difficult to turn evaluation findings into insights for strategic learning and change”. We know that learning and evaluation are critical to effectiveness in philanthropy, and meaningful evaluation is virtually impossible without a stated strategy. And more importantly, without a clear organizational strategy, how will you know you’re being effective? What are you holding yourself accountable to?

Practitioner Perspectives: Insights from the Strategic Learners Network

To help connect the dots between “what” and “how,” members of GEO’s Strategic Learners Network offer their own insights and experiences about how their strategies have helped them center effectiveness in their work.

Robert Medina – Sobrato Philanthropies

Silicon Valley-based Sobrato Philanthropies partners with communities to meet immediate needs, address systemic barriers, and pursue social justice to build a more equitable and sustainable world. The foundation works in three core areas: economic mobility in the Silicon Valley region, English Learner education in California, and global environmental sustainability. My role sits within the education program.

Since 2008, we have invested in efforts to help English Learner students thrive in California schools, most of whom are children and youth of color from immigrant families. When we set out to grow this strategy, our team drew ideas, lessons, and inspiration from the state’s decades-long legacy of community activism. Shaped by voices of lived experience, our grantmaking supports advocates, educators, students, and families to build the capacity and infrastructure to champion a collective vision for educational equity for all English Learners. Along the way, we have learned to lean into our role as “weavers”—connectors and field-builders—creating opportunities for communities to lead and shift policies and systems statewide. Effectiveness for us means our English Learners and their communities can see their diverse languages, cultures, and aspirations for the future reflected in and embraced by their schools.

We have learned to lean into our role as “weavers”—connectors and field-builders—creating opportunities for communities to lead and shift policies and systems statewide.

An essential ingredient has been gathering input and feedback from our partners on a regular basis, both on our strategy and our role, to guide and evolve our work. Together, our grantmaking strategy and our team-embedded approach to evaluation and learning give us the tools to navigate the complexity of systems change while centering the bold vision we share with our partners.

Kelley Adcock – Interact for Health

As a health foundation working in 20 counties surrounding Cincinnati, Interact for Health envisions a more just future where everyone is healthy and thriving, regardless of who they are or where they live. With the launch of a new strategic plan in 2023, we aim to advance health justice by working with communities to improve mental health and well-being, to support community power building, and to change policies and systems. Interact for Health is on a journey to transform from traditional philanthropy that centers its own expertise and power, to one that is community-driven, trust-based and equity-focused.

While we didn’t set out to change our values, by listening and turning the lens inward to challenge our own status quo, it became abundantly clear that we needed to.

Through this journey, which has been far from perfect, we’ve evolved how we think about strategy and our own effectiveness. We engaged diverse voices throughout our recent strategic planning process—from all staff within the organization to grantees, nonprofit partners, and the voices of people with lived experience in our community. And we transparently shared what we learned along the way.

While we didn’t set out to change our values, by listening and turning the lens inward to challenge our own status quo, it became abundantly clear that we needed to. We learned that the link between our strategic direction and our philanthropic effectiveness lies in embracing our organizational values — and bringing them to life in decision-making and everyday actions internally, with nonprofit partners, and in community. Our values hold us accountable to who we aspire to be.

Since 1998 GEO has been a community that has challenged itself to think critically, focused intently on what matters most to nonprofits’ success, and supported participants to implement smarter grantmaking practices. This year, the GEO community celebrates 25 years of exploring what effective grantmaking practice looks like in service of nonprofits and communities. Over the next few months, we invite GEO members, grantmaking practitioners, and other partners to share stories of how GEO has impacted your perspectives on effectiveness.

Kyle Rinne-Meyers

Strategy & Learning Associate Director

Contact Kyle about GEO’s internal learning activities, knowledge management efforts, and research and development projects.

Kyle Rinne is the strategy and learning associate director for Grantmakers for Effective Organizations. He works with the chief operating officer and other staff to lead internal evaluations surrounding GEO’s conferences and other programming. He manages the developmental evaluation for GEO’s emerging projects, including the Leading Change in Philanthropy initiative. He serves as the project manager for major research projects, including the field study and member survey, and manages activities around GEO’s efforts to incorporate nonprofit voice into programming.

Prior to joining the team at GEO, Kyle worked as Child Hunger Corps Member at Feeding America, where he helped coordinate after-school and summer meals programs for Second Harvest Food Bank of Greater New Orleans and Acadiana. He also coordinated leadership development programs in Prague and Rome for students from around the world with Leadership exCHANGE, and served as an intern with a microfinance cooperative in rural Uganda with the Foundation for Sustainable Development.

Kyle holds a Master’s of Public Affairs from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, a Bachelor of Science in Business Marketing from the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, and earned a Certified Nonprofit Professional from the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance.