Reflective Practice for a Small Foundation - Exponent Philanthropy
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Reflective Practice for a Small Foundation

Originally published by GMA Foundations

Stories are a core element of reflective practice—methods and techniques that help individuals and groups learn from their experiences. In the social sector, the stories of how organizations make a difference in the world offer insight and hope, yet they can get lost in the day-to-day work. Grantee stories may be one of the most underused assets of philanthropy.

Listening to a foundation’s grantees

For a small foundation’s reflective practice, grantee stories are a valuable source of learning and inspiration, and thinking differently about the future. The stories offer the foundation a close look at their practices and grantee relationships, which is one way to begin shifting power to the community. The concept is explored in the GrantCraft Leadership Series paper, How Community Philanthropy Shifts Power: What Donors Can Do to Help Make that Happen.

The Sociological Initiatives Foundation (SIF) decided to slow down and harvest some of this wisdom. SIF supports social change by linking research to social action. True to its values of collaboration and participation, the Foundation invited its grantees to share stories of how they fought for equality and justice.

The year-long project provided a framework for board reflection and culminated in the publishing of a casebook.

Reflection through a book project

Stories are a perfect learning and planning tool when you use them as a prompt for the What? So, What? Now What? model of self-reflection. The deceptively simple model provides context, captures salient points, and pushes foundation boards (in this case) to use what they have discovered. The process satisfies the more analytical members of a board as well as the action-oriented ones.

What did the funded organizations accomplish?

Collaborating for Change: A Participatory Action Research Casebook edited by Susan Greenbaum, Glenn Jacobs, and Prentice Zinn documents the stories of a dozen community-based research projects funded by the Foundation. Each chapter, written by project leaders, tells how immigrants, laborers, domestic workers, low-income tenants, indigenous communities, and people experiencing homelessness conducted their own research to help them fight powerful interests.

The book shares David and Goliath stories of how organizations linked research with community organizing. It shows how democratizing research makes it more equitable and how knowledge can build grassroots power. It also reveals how organizations navigate the challenges and power dynamics that come with research and organizing.

So, what did the funder learn?

The Sociological Initiatives Foundation recognized the need to pay more attention to how organizations define and operationalize community participation—a persistent weakness of the field, yet a core mission of its grantmaking.

Through its grantee stories, SIF was reminded that power dynamics are inherent in community research and advocacy, but inconsistently acknowledged by participants. It also learned that foundations do not need a lot of money to be effective. The book project revealed that SIF has an important role beyond grantmaking that can advance the field and support its grantees.

Now what changes will the funder make?

The board’s process of collecting grantee stories and reflecting on their years of experience is complete. Now the Foundation board has a deeper understanding of its theory of change and a framework for best practices. They also have a new set of questions that will help guide future grantmaking, and reflection.

In the coming year, the Foundation hopes to explore how it can help applicants frame their research. They plan to invite more applications led by grassroots organizations and be a more visible champion of community-based research.

Reflect on experience, learn

Just as a competitive athlete would analyze game films, organizations that build in time for reflection will have a strategic advantage. Foundations have a lot to gain by organizing their insights in a way that will help them improve their work.

The process can take a variety of forms. Many foundations produce written reports, white papers, or blog posts that celebrate success or clarify assumptions. The best examples of organized reflection map out the interesting tensions, contradictions, and challenges in play. Others prefer less formal approaches to elicit emerging themes in the work. They like to bring together stakeholders and wrestle with tough questions through facilitated or informal conversations.

Few foundations will be willing to take on a book project, but most would do well to pause for reflection and learning. Foundations rarely explore what is “below the waterline” when projects succeed or fail.

As Jan Jaffe, writing about reflective practice in the Foundation Review, notes:

A lot of the most challenging work for philanthropy practitioners – work that requires adaptive learning –takes place not on the high-speed expressways, but on back roads that are hard to navigate, where there are not maps, and where you cannot reach your destination on your own. These back roads are philanthropy’s most important learning terrains.

Whatever your process for building a reflective practice, “What are you learning?” may be all it takes to get you started down those back roads.

Prentice Zinn is a senior consultant at GMA Foundations and is easily reached by email,


  1. abhi nangia

    LOVE seeing this post. So much helpful insight as we grow to support social change storytelling reaching youth from a young age, too. Thank you!!

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