Nonprofits Seek Out Former Grant Makers to Take the Reins

November 4, 2013
Source: Chronicle of Philanthropy
Author: Maria Di Mento

Oran Hesterman, founder and chief executive of the Fair Food Network, was program director for food systems at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "The most important part of my work as a fundraiser is establishing and maintaining strong relationships."


Oran Hesterman, Photo by Doug Coombe

Katherine Snider was in the slums of Uganda, touring the Rockefeller Foundation’s programs there, when she was struck by the thought that many of her fellow New Yorkers were living in impoverished conditions that were almost as bad.

“I had a hard time removing myself from what they were going through and feeling that I wanted to do more and that the philanthropic movement was two or three steps removed from these families,” says Ms. Snider, who was Rockefeller’s associate director of communications during that 2008 trip. “It reminded me that I should be on the other side of things and that I needed to be in New York focusing on poverty issues there.”

Today, as executive director of Baby Buggy, a charity that provides clothing, baby gear, and services to needy New York families, Ms. Snider is applying the lessons she learned at the Rockefeller Foundation.

Back to Their Roots

Ms. Snider’s epiphany that she wanted a more hands-on role is not uncommon these days, and charities are taking notice.

Joseph Cahalan, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, was the president of the Xerox Foundation. "You feel connected to the work; there's a direct line. You're not someplace where you don't see how it ends up."

Patty Stonesifer, chief executive of Martha's Table, was chief executive of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "I got several calls where I thought, 'I would love to have that title,' but I didn't want to walk in in the morning in that outfit, with that agenda, and do that job."

More nonprofits are looking to hire people who have either run a foundation or served in a high-level position at one, says Patty Hampton, a recruiter who helps nonprofits find new leaders. One reason: As a grant maker, they developed skills in fundraising and shaping programs that charities find useful, she says.

Jacob Harold, who led grant making at the Hewlett Foundation before becoming chief executive of GuideStar last year, says another reason those with foundation experience make good nonprofit leaders is related to their deep understanding of the role strategy plays in grant making.

“You come to understand the way that foundations make decisions between operating support and project support, how they think about time horizons, how budgets are structured, and how decisions move up through the staff to the board of a foundation,” all of which is valuable information for people who run nonprofits, he says.

And grant makers often find charity work more satisfying, says Ms. Hampton.
“It’s about getting back to their roots and what they value as an individual,” she says. “They can see doing that more so at a nonprofit than at a foundation.”

Because grant makers are constantly interacting with different types of nonprofits, adds Mr. Harold, nonprofit leaders with previous foundation experience also gain a “bird’s-eye view” of the field that changes their perspective, sometimes more so than those who have only worked at charities.

For some, that change in perspective can be dramatic and literal. Ms. Snider, for instance, says she has moved “from an office that overlooks the Chrysler Building to one that overlooks a methadone clinic.”

Seeking Impact

Ms. Snider joined Baby Buggy in September 2008, just as the financial crisis was hitting. With little understanding of what the new fundraising climate would be like, she sought to find ways to keep the charity’s budget in line with the new financial reality.

In better times, the charity donated goods to about 75 organizations that aid needy families, but it couldn’t raise enough money to keep doing that.

“We wanted to winnow that down and really look at where we could make our donations have more value,” says Ms. Snider. “So we started working with programs to use these donations as incentives to get clients to meet certain goals.”

She got the idea from a grantee she supported at Rockefeller that made aid available only when people met specific goals. Baby Buggy started giving needy families incentives to attend financial-literacy classes. For example, if a parent attended a certain number of classes, or met goals such as improving a credit score or opening a savings account, he or she would get extra donations of diapers, clothing, and other items.

“Here was a way to get donations into the hands of families who needed them but also to incentivize those parents to take steps that would help their self-sufficiency over the long run,” says Ms. Snider. “That was something I probably never would have dreamed up if not for my experience at Rockefeller.”

Seeking Support

Foundation employees are usually cushioned by endowments and plentiful resources, but charity leaders need to think constantly about raising money. For those not used to fundraising, it can be a difficult transition. For others, it can be fun.

When Oran Hesterman founded Fair Food Network in 2009, after nearly 17 years as a program officer at the Kellogg Foundation, he was astonished by how much he enjoyed fundraising.

“It’s probably the part of my job I enjoy the most,” says Mr. Hesterman, whose charity feeds the hungry and seeks to improve food systems and policy. “I find great gratification in being able to share what we’re doing and engaging others in pursuit of our mission.”

Adds Mr. Hesterman, who owned a couple of small organic farms before joining Kellogg: “To me, it’s as fulfilling as when Safeway decided to carry our alfalfa sprouts.”

But raising cash can be tougher than growing sprouts. When he is seeking grants, he’s found success with a respectful approach he learned from the discomfort he sometimes felt as a grant maker.

While he liked being able to take the time at Kellogg to help grantees, he says, he did not enjoy knowing that no matter what the setting, many charity leaders treated him as if he had a dollar sign on his forehead.

“That’s a challenging role to play,” says Mr. Hesterman. “How to play that role well, to understand it’s with you all the time, and work with it in a way that doesn’t burn you out and doesn’t disrespect the person you’re having a conversation with, it’s a real challenge.” He keeps that in mind now that he is the one asking for money, and is careful not to always be asking for funds.

“The most important part of my work as a fundraiser is establishing and maintaining strong relationships,” says Mr. Hesterman. “Sometimes the strength is through the ask, and sometimes it’s simply through sharing what you’re doing and not asking for money.”

That approach has worked well. The nonprofit has raised more than $18-million since Mr. Hesterman started it in 2009 and regularly draws support from more than 40 foundations, an accomplishment he says he owes to his cautious approach.

Getting to the Point

Other charity leaders agree that their experiences working as grant makers have taught them to avoid asking for money right away.

“I don’t chase every person, foundation, and corporation that has money with the expectation that they should invest,” says Joseph Cahalan, chief executive of Concern Worldwide, an international aid organization. During his two decades running the Xerox Foundation, he says, he learned that it’s best to understand a potential donor’s interests before asking for support.

On the other hand, he says, he was sometimes surprised, in his role as grant maker, by a charity’s timidity in asking for a donation.

“I would often have to actually open up the question of what exactly are they asking from us,” says Mr. Cahalan. “There is a culture in some parts of the nonprofit world where people have a very hard time getting to the money question. You almost think the hour meeting is going to run its course and you’ll never be asked.”

Respectful but direct is the way to go when approaching grant makers, he’s learned. And more fundraisers, says Mr. Cahalan, need to remember why they are meeting with a prospective donor in the first place: “You really want the money because you really want to help the people your organization serves. Sometimes fundraisers forget that.”

'Pull the Lens Back’

Perhaps the most visible leader to move from a foundation to a charity in recent years is Patty Stonesifer, who ran the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation until 2008. In April Ms. Stonesifer took the helm at Martha’s Table, a Washington antipoverty organization whose $6-million in assets is a tiny fraction of the $37-billion Gates philanthropy.

At Gates, she helped review thousands of grant proposals. These days, she might find herself standing on the street at 7 a.m. making sure parents who are bringing their children to a before-school program know where to sign in, or helping the group’s volunteers hand out sandwiches in a park where the homeless and hungry congregate.

Ms. Stonesifer says that although she loves the hands-on aspect of her current work, it has made her better understand how little time charity leaders have to stand back and assess the big-picture, long-term results of the work their organizations are doing. As she well knows, foundations often place a premium on collecting data and assessing results when deciding where to direct grant money.

“That’s the challenge of everyone in a position like mine,” says Ms. Stonesifer. “Luckily I’ve been on the other side, so I understand that funders want and should demand that.”

Her background as a grant maker pushes her today to take the time to “pull the lens back” and look at her charity’s work in full, so she can convey it to potential supporters.

Being able to clearly explain the impact of programs is important, she says, but charity and foundation leaders should also be mindful that it’s not the whole story.
“Funders should understand there are certain activities, like emergency needs and some forms of advocacy, where it’s harder to say this action leads to that change in society, or to that impact.”

Slower Results

Others who have made the switch from foundation to charity work also believe grant makers put too much emphasis on measured results.

Musimbi Kanyoro, who is from Kenya and leads the Global Fund for Women, was drawn away from her much-loved job as a program director at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation by, she says, “an opportunity to be a voice for the grass roots from which I came and that I know so well.”

Much of her organization’s work centers on defending the rights of women in places where they are often threatened, and changing the conditions under which many of those women live can take many years, says Ms. Kanyoro.

More foundations should realize, she says, that for groups like hers, the journey is as important as the destination.

“You could work in a place for five or 10 years before you actually affect women’s lives, but while working there you can begin to convince the religious leaders, the women themselves, the teachers, the government officials,” she says.

“People can give up if they are looking for certain outcomes. The emphasis on impact is sometimes too fast for the realities of local places.”

First posted at The Chronicle of Philanthropy on October 20, 2013. Posted with permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.