Listening, Learning, Supporting: Reflections on the RFF Team’s Support Beyond The Grant

Children playing with teacher in classroom, Courtesy of the Rogers Family Foundation

When the Rogers Family Foundation announced the sunsetting of our Oakland education strategy in October 2020, our team knew we’d reach a point of reflection on our grantmaking and practices over the last two decades. That time is now. This piece focuses on the concept of “Beyond the Grant,” which challenges funders to leverage internal organizational capacity to support their fund recipients and partners beyond grant dollars alone. According to the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, non-monetary support can bolster a grantee’s leadership, capacity, and organizational health. This is the story of the Rogers Family Foundation’s approach and culture of providing meaningful support beyond the grant. This piece was originally published by the Rogers Family Foundation and is re-published here with permission.

In 2004 during the early days of the Rogers Family Foundation, Brian Rogers would sit in his office on College Avenue in Oakland reading and writing reports. He’d grown increasingly frustrated in shaping and finding focus for his family’s new philanthropy. His parents, founders T. Gary and Kathleen Rogers, had given him the latitude to shape the Foundation how he thought appropriate. He’d spent a great deal of time gathering information from other funders and the principal advice often came back the same: keep your professional distance from grantees. The power dynamic and perceived control of resources would get in the way. Building a “Wall of No” to reject grantee requests would be easier from afar. Then he listened to one of the country’s leading educators/civil rights activists speak at a conference. “I heard Howard Fuller describe what it takes to connect with communities,” Brian recalled. “He was speaking about the field of philanthropy, but it applied to everything. He said it’s not about the grass roots or grass tops. You need to burrow in to get to the heart of your community. The true connections happen in the tunnels underground. At that point, I decided to be accessible. No more sitting in the office. I knew I needed to be in the community.”

Making grants is the Rogers Family Foundation’s core business function. It is, however, our opening line – not our final act. We thrive on the opportunity to connect our roles to our mission and strategy, and to deploy our array of talent to meet the needs of grantees and community partners beyond the execution of a grant. For our team this is both expectation and exhilaration. Commitment and connectedness. Responsibility and reward. The story we share is not a how-to guide. It is about the organizational will and culture required to deliver for our grantees and ultimately the students and families of Oakland, California.

A Culture of Capacity, Autonomy, and Accessibility

As the Foundation team grew, Brian applied accessibility and community building as key tenets of the organization. Sometimes it can be as simple as lending your space for a grantee retreat, and other times it’s staffing a community coalition among like-minded organizations. “In my first month, Brian said to me ‘I don’t want to see you at your desk,’ meaning, I should be out in the community listening, learning, supporting, and meeting people in their places and spaces,” reflected Senior Program Officer Sara Levine. “I think that mandate really encouraged me to just lean in and do whatever I can to support people.”

Empowering the team and letting them lead represents the Rogers Family Foundation’s central animating principle. It draws its origins from the culture T. Gary Rogers built at Dreyer’s Ice Cream and comprises two words: You Decide. “It does provide autonomy, but it’s really about agency,” says Bonnie Look, Associate Director for Strategic Operations. “It takes a bit to get used to the idea that you’re deciding your boundaries, deciding what can be delivered, and then taking action. We don’t get hung up on over assessing who can help with what.” The ability to decide – to drive one’s own work – is not absent of accountability. Our team shares a mutual commitment to each other and to the Foundation’s mission, strategy, and goals. We are pointed in the same direction with a shared destination. The principle of “You Decide” imparts to each team member that 1) we believe in your talent and the collective skills of our team, 2) we know you will build strong relationships within the team and in the community, and 3) we trust you can get to where we are going.

This is not about allowing or permitting. It is entirely about positioning, guiding, and encouraging each team member to steer their work toward impact. “You Decide” allows mistakes without reprisal. Failure facilitates growth and movement toward progress. This approach translates directly to how staff works with grantees. The same autonomy, belief, and accessibility inherent across the team can be found in grantee relationships. “I could be vulnerable, honest, and know we were moving toward the same purpose and goal. We could dive right into problem-solving,” said New Profit Managing Director of Equity & Proximity and former Envision Education CEO Gia Truong. “Relationships require both parties. The Rogers Team always showed up. You’d ask, ‘How can we help?’ You all were there at every critical moment over my last few years offering support and strategic thought partnership: strategy refresh due to the challenges of COVID, school mergers, CEO transition, facilities. You understood that the only way we get to positive actions comes from being in community together.”

“You need to burrow in to get to the heart of your community. The true connections happen in the tunnels underground. At that point, I decided to be accessible. . . I knew I needed to be in the community.” – Brian Rogers, Board Secretary and Chief Executive Officer Emeritus

Grantees First: Back Them To Succeed

Selena Wilson, CEO of the East Oakland Youth Development Center, has a specific expectation of the foundations with whom she works. “I’ve been encouraging our funders to move from a mindset of charity to one of solidarity. I don’t worry about Rogers,” she asserts. “Solidarity is how you work with us. Those working with a trust-based philanthropy lens need to evangelize their approach with their funding colleagues.”

Trust – in a philanthropic, grantee-grantor relationship – is hard earned. We have found that extending the skills and service of our team is a good place to start. As suggested by the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project, two of the most essential competencies that foundation staff can bring are 1) listening and hearing intently to understand the grantee’s needs and challenges, and 2) providing assurance that grantees set the terms of engagement with no obligation to accept the foundation’s support. A perfectly acceptable response to offers of support is ‘no thanks.’ The will or skills of the team may not match grantee needs. Jillian Juman, CEO of Envision Education, makes the most of the opportunity to access the Rogers team on her terms. “It’s been incredible to have someone say, ‘we got you; let us find the how’ in problem solving.” says Jillian. “I appreciate that I get to choose how to engage with you all. It’s OK if the skill sets offered just don’t align. I like the flexibility of exploring but we can’t always find a project that works and it doesn’t help to force it.”

When it works, it really works. “I remember when Greg Klein [Senior Director for Innovation and Learning] brought up this opportunity. He framed it as ‘if you had additional people, what would you want them to do?’ Greg made clear that it was our decision whether we wanted the additional support,” explains Paula Mitchell, Executive Director of Agency by Design Oakland. “We’re educators first; entrepreneurship was new to us. We know our field, but we were developing our skills in  communications, development, strategic planning, or running an organization. Rogers helped us with all that and it never felt like a burden. It made so much sense.”

Paula Mitchell with the Agency by Design Oakland Team, Alia Ghabra and Jane Lee. Photo courtesy of AbDO.

Our approach is to remain nimble in order to create the space and opportunity for grantees to choose the kind of capacity building or technical assistance they need. Sometimes our team does not have the requisite skills. Other times grantees want to build a longer term relationship with a consulting group. When our team met with FULCRUM, a leading literacy advocacy organization, it became clear that what FULCRUM needed to advance their communications far exceeded our personnel’s skill set. They also clearly wanted to work with a talented, Black–owned Oakland consulting team. In this case, they did not need our support beyond their general operating support grant; they needed another grant. Like many other foundations who invest in organizational capacity building, we keep unencumbered resources in our grantmaking budget for these types of projects and made a complementary grant to support FULCRUM’s communications strategy.

We stay close and in-the-know with grantees so that we’re ready when they’re ready for assistance. We approach this work as supporters, not directors. We aim to be collaborative problem solvers. We ask grantees where they’re stuck and how might we remove obstacles. We value the relationship and deliver on the promises we make. We acknowledge that we are multiple degrees removed from the change we seek on the ground. Grantees are the experts and we take our cues from them. We are not perfect; failure is an option so long as we learn, adjust, and grow.

Let Your Non-Program People Cook

Kimi Kean, Co-Founder and CEO of Families in Action for Quality Education, has been a Rogers grantee across multiple organizations for more than a dozen years. Her view into the Rogers Family Foundation and the field of philanthropy dives deep. Kimi has engaged in one fashion or another with nearly every member of our team. “Let’s be real. Foundations get to hire kick-ass, super talented teams,” she declared. “With Rogers, what an absolute pleasure and privilege it has been to work with a talent like Dana [Wellhausen, Deputy Director]. Super kind, willing to help at every turn, and so much knowledge about how to maximize student data as a tool for change. People in my position don’t often get to work with someone like Dana because she’s not traditional program staff.”

Kimi Kean and Dr. Charles Cole III with Amina Assefa presenting the Dirk Tillotson Award. Photo courtesy of Families in Action.

Not. Traditional. Program. Staff. If you don’t know, now you know: Program Officers are just the tip of a foundation’s talent iceberg. Why wouldn’t you tap the knowledge, skills, and experience embedded throughout your organization? What barriers need to be torn down to make this happen? “Foundations should remove those practices that are often considered precious and sacred, and build the kind of organizations they want with reduced internal demands to allow all team members to serve grantees and their communities,” says Dana Wellhausen. “If I did not engage in beyond the grant work I think I would feel more isolated in my role. This opportunity makes grantees and individuals ‘more real’ as I get a chance to understand and support them.” In her dozen years in philanthropy Dana’s never managed a grant portfolio, yet her commitment to and impact on grantee success and community initiatives compare favorably with any program officer.

Meet Cynthia Suter, Senior Executive Assistant. Her daily responsibilities demand attention on executive functions and close coordination with the Rogers Family Office. When the Foundation took on the fiscal sponsorship for a dynamic Oakland education entrepreneur launching a youth advocacy project, we turned to Cynthia to make it happen. “My role can be detached; I’m in an executive silo,” reflected Cynthia. “I was intimidated initially, then realized getting to be part of a grantee’s work strengthens me, strengthens the organization, and most importantly lets me serve the students of Oakland.” Using her years of experience in nonprofit operations and people support, Cynthia handled funder relations and reporting, fiscal and accounting oversight, contract coordination, and student stipends. She also served as a sounding board and anchor for the project’s team. “We love Cynthia. She’s a real person. We definitely couldn’t do this without her,” expressed Dr. Charles Cole, III, Founder of Energy Convertors. “I know you all gave us Cyn to give her a chance to grow, show skills, and expand on her daily, but working with her helped us grow too. Angie [Skelton, Energy Convertors’ Executive Assistant] and I found out what we don’t know and what we needed to get good at about managing the business.”

Engaging in beyond the grant work across the organization not only demands an absolute trust and belief in each team member’s skills, knowledge, and abilities, but also in their capacity for growth. Kate Ray, who made the leap from Program Assistant to Associate over the past four years, sees her experience as an elastic band that lets her stretch and test her abilities, while remaining anchored to her core responsibilities. Some days she handles logistics for a grantee convening, the next she’s doing program officer due diligence for a youth development grantee or delivering strategic communications support. “The Foundation allows team members to try new things,” Kate says, “I discover what I can do and acknowledge what I can’t. This is such a meaningful way to support grantees AND the development of your team.”

Our scan of the field reveals we are not alone in unleashing non-program talent. Similar smaller placed-based foundations – the Phoenixville Community Health Foundation in Pennsylvania and the Dave & Cheryl Duffield Foundation in Incline Village, Nevada – have utilized their entire teams to deliver supports such as financial analysis, nonprofit management, operational assessments with action plans, and coalition building. There are others at the advent of their journey who understand the power and impact of this work with grantees. Suki O’Kane of the Walter & Elise Haas Fund gets it. “It’s like reinventing the trajectory of a philanthropic career – away from hierarchy and toward engagement,” stated Suki. “If you activate every individual in the organization in service for grantees, you’ll get better workers; they’ll be happier, engaged, and have purpose.”

Not Your Grandpa’s Program Team

Creating positive impact externally demands a different approach internally. Those of us who rose through philanthropy by way of a “program track” might recognize the habitual and hierarchical nature of a “program team.” These teams and their meetings largely spotlight senior grantmaker roles, centering discussion on grant portfolios, upcoming events, docket review, and occasional problem solving. Non-program members attend, observe quietly, and speak occasionally. Participation is a courtesy.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

What if the group functioned more like a learning circle or community of practice? What if the group’s agenda solely focused on supporting each other to be of service to grantees? What if the team existed to shift staff perspectives about their job from one of obligation to one of service? From transaction to transformation? “Our program meetings [comprised of every team member except the CEO] and All Staff meetings are open enough where everyone is encouraged to speak up,” declares Bonnie Look, “we have generative, solutions-oriented conversations and working sessions.”

Internal structures that support interconnectedness translate to positive impacts with external partners. A sure indicator of a highly connected group is each team member’s capacity to distinguish their colleagues’ particular set of skills and activate them to the benefit of the Foundation’s grantees. “We have a culture of leaning on each other. My role – inside and outside the Foundation – is connecting,” says Sara Levine. “As a program officer, I’m a broker trying to connect grantee needs to the vast and capable array of skills across the team, which often is housed by my non-PO or program specific colleagues; things like graphic design, data analysis, Salesforce technical assistance, and communications.”

Dr. Sabrina “Bri” Moore speaking at a celebration event.

One of Sara’s longest-standing relationships has been with Dr. Sabrina ‘Bri’ Moore, the Founder and Executive Director of Literacy Leadership & Liberation (3Ls). Sara meets weekly with Dr. Bri, playing an instrumental role in connecting her with other funders and helping think through all aspects of 3Ls organization building. “Sara’s belief, confidence, and time mean so much more than money. She makes the way,” stated Dr. Bri. “When we dove deep into project management and systems, Sara brought in Bonnie Look. We did a SWOT analysis, and Bonnie was there asking, ‘Where are you stuck? What can I do to help?’ I got everything and probably more than what I imagined from Bonnie. But I don’t know her without Sara.”

We believe in the power of interconnected, purpose-driven teams. They derive their strength from the individual and collective talent of its members. The Rogers Family Foundation is not unique in our approach. Over the past six years, the Overdeck Family Foundation deepened its commitment to grantees by providing support to “unlock innovation, evidence, and growth opportunities in order to measurably enhance education inside and outside the classroom.” Under the leadership of Lucy Brainard, Manager of Portfolio Success & Operations, Overdeck’s three levels of support equip grantees with the capacity and technical assistance to “improve the effectiveness and future sustainability of organizations.” While many national foundations offer assistance similar to Overdeck’s “Intensive Supports” in this model, which consists of technical assistance provided by consultants and third parties, its Selective Supports and Universal Supports delivered by every member of their core program staff and cross-functional teams are rare. We admire what they are doing and believe other foundations would be wise to follow their example.

Is There a Secret Sauce?

Do we have a recipe for how we got to who, what, and why we are? Looking back over the past 20 years, Brian Rogers answered, “Part of it is hard work, part of it is the people, part of it is the place – Oakland. It’s been organic, like making good soup. We add what we need.”

At the outset of our spend down, we added a key ingredient that amplified our beyond the grant efforts: enter the Entrepreneur in Residence. The position is entirely committed to delivering technical assistance and capacity building identified by grantees. Jenna Stauffer, a long-time grantee and co-Founder of Lighthouse Community Public Schools, joined our team in late 2019. “I sensed what my job would be since I received so much support when I led Lighthouse,” says Jenna. “The potential of ‘beyond the grant’ is endless. It allows foundations to supercharge its grantees, their missions, and stakeholders. It can be a whole cultural approach to giving; or it can be an add-on support. It allows for creativity and collaboration, which makes all our work better.” To describe Jenna’s experience requires its own story, one she will tell in a piece we will publish later this year.

While we have consistently executed our beyond the grant approach for two decades, our status as a limited lifetime foundation has undeniably accelerated our support of grantees. Our values have always put students – and by extension, grantees – at the center of our work, and each member of our team unquestionably desires to be of greater service to grantees and our Oakland community. The dawn of
our spend down greenlighted and put into motion our team’s creative ideas to engage grantees and community collaborations in ways to leave them in as strong a position as possible so they continue to thrive when we are gone. If we have one regret, it is that we did not commit to the depth of this approach sooner. It could have happened long before our spend down. Disrupting the precious and sacred of the day-to-day does not need an inciting incident; it only requires the organizational will to do so.

Ours is not an exceptional story, but it can be emblematic. We hope it lights a fuse for others to try similar approaches. “I’ve experienced a few foundations sunsetting. It isn’t always like this. Most of them feel like an eclipse,” reflected Selena Wilson. “One day you’re out here in the light…then nothing. You get a last grant and you’re on your way. With Rogers, it does feel like a sunset where you’re getting to absorb it, savor it. It’s not just about a final grant; it’s your continued support of us ‘til the end. You’re really intentional about the work, the relationship. We’re happy to be a part of it. We get to celebrate it.”

Rhonnel Sotelo is the CEO of the Rogers Family Foundation
Kate Ray is a program associate at the Rogers Family Foundation

The views and opinions expressed in individual blog posts are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the National Center for Family Philanthropy.