Ask Your Way to Impact: Nonprofit Dialogue - Exponent Philanthropy
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Ask Your Way to Impact: Nonprofit Dialogue

How can a small foundation with a limited grantmaking budget leverage its resources to make an even greater impact? This post offers questions to ask nonprofit organizations as your foundation pursues impact.

When small foundation leaders meet with nonprofit organizations, it is important to ask great questions that get beyond the answers we can find in an annual report or theory of change. I approach nonprofit leaders not as organizations that need our resources to do their work, but as partners who are working toward the impact we both want to achieve.

There are thoughtful ways to approach nonprofit board members, staff, and clients, but I want to focus on conversations with the primary leaders. In these conversations, I listen as much to how they answer questions as what they say. I look for thoughtfulness, creativity, and marks of real leadership and honesty. I try to create a safe space for them to openly share insights and explore solutions together.

My questions for nonprofit leaders typically focus on the following key areas:

Greater context

No nonprofit organization stands alone. I want to understand how they relate to their field, our region, other players, and how they view their role in complex, interconnected issues. I ask:

  • How do they stay apprised of the latest research and then apply best practices to their work?
  • What does the field need nationally and locally to advance?
  • What threatens the field and what opportunities exist?
  • Who do they collaborate with and how?
  • What role would they love to see funders play in the field locally?

Healthy organization

We want to invest in healthy organizations. I like to ask a few questions to understand how the leader approaches certain issues.

  • How do they view their fundraising efforts? Whose responsibility is it?
  • How do they describe their donor base?
  • Do they describe their organization as more leader-driven or more board-driven?
  • What does their board need to grow?
  • What kind of training, self-care, and professional development do they have in place for their staff?
  •  How many hours a week do their people work?
  • Who are their key people and how long have they been there?

Vision for the future

No matter how you slice it, it always comes back to vision.

  • Do they accurately see things as they are and do they have a compelling vision for how they could be?
  • What are they limited by? Is it capacity or resources? Supply or demand?
  • What opportunities internally and externally are most compelling in the next 5 years, and what are they most concerned about?
  • What do they view as their biggest mistakes?
  • What successes are they most proud of?
  • If they accomplish everything they set out to accomplish in the next 5 years, what change would exist in the world?
  • If they had $1 million to invest in any part of their organization, what would they do?

These questions are simply conversation-starters, and they can lead to powerful dialogue in which we often end up jointly dreaming, brainstorming, and identifying powerful opportunities for change.

In one of my conversations I found an organization that was healthy, had strong outcomes, good programs and staff, and a vision for serious expansion. The keys to growth were better engaging their board and donor base and developing more consistent giving. We gave them a $50,000 matching grant to stimulate monthly auto-contributions to their organization. The initiative had to be board-driven, engage new donors, and work in tandem with a great donor-development plan. Ultimately, they raised over $50,000 in commitments over 7 months along with several larger one-time gifts, and they are well on a path to sustainability.

Other conversations lead to other types of investments, but in every case great, honest dialogue and an open-minded approach can lead to powerful, high-impact grantmaking. Would you agree?

Lindsay Matush is executive director of The Brown Sisters Foundation in St. Louis, MO. In 2008 she founded Vario Consulting, where she helps small businesses, foundations, and nonprofits become more effective by becoming more strategic.


  1. Hi Lindsay, Thanks for this thought-provoking post. The questions you ask merely in conversation, also would make good fodder for a partner-review or site-visit questionnaire. And then looking internally, we all could ask ourselves what change in the world we hope to accomplish in the next five years . . .

  2. Great questions lead to useful answers! Nice job, Lindsay.

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