When and How to Partner with Philanthropic Advisers - Exponent Philanthropy
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When and How to Partner with Philanthropic Advisers

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Photo by Pavel Danilyuk

To paraphrase the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, it’s easy to give away money. However, it’s much more difficult to know how and where to give it. Anyone who has managed a grantmaking program understands.

Granting money is not difficult. Doing it effectively is another story.

That’s why many leanly staffed foundations often enlist philanthropic advisers—organizations or individuals who specialize in designing and implementing grant programs.

What Are Philanthropic Advisers?

A good philanthropic adviser can serve as your strategic grantmaking counsel. They can work with your foundation to craft short- and long-term grantmaking strategies that consider your past giving, values, and future goals.

Philanthropic advisers also can provide more tactical services.

Take for example, my organization, The New York Community Trust. It leverages its knowledge of New York nonprofits to introduce family and private foundations to nonprofit executives who manage programs that align with their missions. We’ll also arrange site visits and facilitate meetings with potential grantees.

In other cases, we’ll serve as a foundation’s back office and administer a full-service grantmaking program. This includes identifying and selecting nonprofits, vetting applications, conducting site visits, administering the grants and paperwork, monitoring, and evaluating impact, and creating summary reports.

Your philanthropic adviser can also take on a more public role: taking nonprofit calls and inquiries, hosting informational webinars for potential grantees, and offering advice to nonprofits as they complete their grant applications.

Such advising relationships can be especially powerful for foundations with limited full-time staff on their payroll. Advisers can assist more established philanthropies that are looking to stand up a new program or reach a new community.

The Power of Advising Relationships

That was the Jerome L. Greene Foundation’s goal when it was looking to set up a new grantmaking program. It wanted to improve access to the performing arts in New York by providing grants to local theaters.

The family foundation already had an established grantmaking operation. Yet, it decided it could make a greater impact by partnering with an outside organization that understood New York’s arts community from a different perspective.

As a community foundation with a robust arts grantmaking program in its home city, The Trust proved to be a good match. We have deep relationships with many theaters across the city — relationships that were forged through our own grantmaking and community leadership work.

We used those relationships to identify a number of New York theaters that we invited to apply to an RFP. Then, we presented these choices and our analysis of the pool to the foundation for its selection. After that, we administered grants to the select nonprofits on its behalf and provided detailed reporting on the program.

In 2019, the program’s first year, the Jerome L. Greene Foundation grants brought 120,000 new people to the theater, delivering on its goal of growing audiences and connecting with those who couldn’t otherwise afford live theater in New York.

Then, in 2020, the pandemic hit. When theaters across the city closed that spring, the foundation decided to convert the grants to general operating support. Because it had a knowledgeable and well-resourced partner at its side, it quickly responded to the needs of the theater community.

In consultation with the foundation, we worked with our nonprofit partners and were able to modify grant restrictions to help theaters move to virtual programming, invest in staff, and stand up hyperlocal, outdoor community events. Instead of bringing people to the theater, the Jerome L. Greene Foundation was able to bring theater to the people.

Our knowledge of and relationships with the community made us an ideal partner for the foundation. Together, we used our shared expertise to deliver outcomes that would have otherwise been difficult to achieve.

When Should You Look for a Partner?

The Jerome L. Greene Foundation offers a powerful example of how these partnerships can work. But we’ve found that foundations of all sizes can benefit from working with philanthropic advisers.

Here are some scenarios when such a partnership makes sense:

  • When you’re getting started. New foundations can consider a philanthropic adviser as it develops its grantmaking strategy and create the infrastructure needed to run an effective program.
  • When you need to act quickly or differently. An outside adviser can be especially helpful when you’re looking to address a fast-moving situation, such as in response to a natural disaster, or are experimenting with new ways of distributing grants.
  • When you’re creating a new program. Philanthropic advisers are effective partners for foundations that are looking to move into a new area of grantmaking and want to tap into different networks of grantees.
  • When you’re moving into a new community. Some foundations are well versed in running grantmaking programs in their home communities. However, they struggle to stand up programs in communities where they do not have a physical presence. A philanthropic adviser with deep relationships can make the move into a new community easier and more effective.

What Should You Look For in a Partner?

Philanthropic advisers can take many forms. Some are consultants who have experience managing grantmaking programs at foundations. Others are community foundations or private foundations that offer bespoke services.

When choosing the right philanthropic adviser, it’s important to make sure their values align with your organization’s values. Similarly, it’s important that their expertise matches your needs. With that in mind, take time to review the adviser’s past work, ask them to define their areas of expertise, and determine what services they are equipped to provide.

For example, an adviser who specializes in strategy but does not have the infrastructure to carry out the logistics of a grantmaking program isn’t a great fit if you’re looking for day-to-day support. But if you find an adviser who shares your values and has the capacity to help you achieve your grantmaking goals, you’ll be on the path to achieving greater impact.

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About the Author

Kerry McCarthy is vice president for philanthropic initiatives for The New York Community Trust.

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