Are You Helping Grantees Succeed—or Trying to Catch Them Messing Up?

For over 15 years, Tipping Point has believed in the power of unrestricted funding, based in relationships with grantees. The excerpt below comes from an essay I wrote for Funding Performance: How Great Donors Invest in Grantee Success, a collection of essays from philanthropic leaders including The Ford Foundation, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and others, sharing our expertise and best practices that you—our grantees and our donors—helped us build.

If you know me well, you know that I love data. I remember a moment earlier in my career when we were implementing a state-of-the-art data system to help us rigorously track client outcomes. One prospective funder wasn’t happy with what he saw. “Your data show that drug use goes up when they participate in the program,” he said. “I can’t fund something like that.”

Fortunately, he gave me a chance to respond. Drug use was not going up. The reality was that we were finally building the kind of trust with the young people in our programs where they were willing to admit that they were smoking weed. When we conducted one-on-one interviews with our kids, we learned that we had previously given them incentive to lie to us. They feared that if they told us the truth, we wouldn’t help them.

Many funders do the same thing: they inadvertently set up incentives for grantees to lie to them. They give grantees signals that they’re trying to catch grantees messing up rather than working to understand how they can help them succeed.

The insights below are informed by the powerful, pivotal moment in which we find ourselves. Rahm Emanuel famously said, “Never allow a good crisis go to waste. It’s an opportunity to do the things you once thought were impossible.” What follows are my top three tips I hope funders will explore and then act upon so we can start to do the impossible, together.

1. Build Genuine Trust with Grantees

Now that I’m a funder myself, I try very hard to greet bad news with gratitude and curiosity rather than scorn or judgment—just as Tipping Point leaders did with me, seeing through the negative to ask about the “why.” I can be much more helpful as a funder if I’m operating with honest, real information rather than sugar-coated talk.

Bottom line: If you’re not willing to create the space for two-way, trust-based relationships with your grantees, that’s your prerogative. But please don’t use the word “partnership” on your website.

2. If You Expect High Performance, Invest in It

At First Place, we developed human and technology systems focused on improving, not just proving. We built sophisticated algorithms that allowed us to see that if we were to do three specific things well with our target population, we would increase our likelihood of success by 20%. As a result of all of this work, we began to get recognized by other foundations and that gave us more dollars to help invest in the disciplines that drive performance.

Bottom line: If you’re not willing to help your grantees build the kind of human and technology systems that support learning and improvement, that’s your prerogative. But please don’t “pester them for more information on results,” in the words of Mario Morino, whose book, Leap of Reason: Managing to Outcomes in an Era of Scarcity, is a plea for nonprofits and funders to embrace rigorous management and learning practices so they can create more social good.

3. Own Up to Your Implicit Bias

These days, well-intentioned (White) funders often ask me, “How can we find more leaders of color, those who are more proximate to the problems we want to help solve?” But when I offer my insights, they tell me that “those leaders don’t want to collect data.” To that I respond, “They do! They just haven’t found funders willing to help them build the systems they need.” I know because I was once in caught in the same Catch-22.

Bottom line: If you’re not willing to examine how racial and other biases play out in your work—from how you construct your pipeline to how you build your Board—that’s your prerogative. But please don’t use the words “equity” or “inclusion” on your PowerPoint slides.

As Ford’s Hilary Pennington shared in her essay in the collection, we must “move from performative statements that signal our virtue to hard self-examination.” It’s not always easy, but it’s worth it. Let’s get to work.

Click here to read my full essay, listen to the audio version I recorded, and read the very powerful essays of other funders.


Sam Cobbs, Tipping Point Community CEO

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