By JIM HUIZENGA
For almost three decades I have been what is known as a grantmaker or funder, first at PNC Bank and most recently at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
Those of us who make grants contribute money to nonprofit organizations – better described, I believe, as service providers – in support of their work.
Reflecting on my years as a funder, it is clear I have learned much, attitudes have been shaped and perspectives sharpened. One perspective stands out for me; it guides my behavior and speech every day: Honor the Passion!
I have had the privilege of countless conversations with dedicated folks delivering services of all sorts on the frontlines in our community. Nearly all have expressed a genuine passion for their work – some confidently soft spoken, some demonstrative and emotive (and even quirky) and others logical and articulate. It has been both fascinating and enlightening to observe the energy, the commitment and the creativity that drive these folks.
I recognize that I am not like these people. I am more oriented toward the practical and boring stuff: organizational structure, financial management and sustainability, efficient delivery of service, and measured growth. But despite our differences in outlook, I believe I must honor service providers as they exercise their passion in service to others, working very hard, committing to long days, and in many cases being underpaid.
A couple of years ago, I had a series of conversations with the artistic director and a board member of a very small performing arts organization that fills an extraordinary niche of instrumental music. They felt the time had come to grow in terms of concerts, audience, marketing and income (earned and contributed). They believed the next step was to hire a full-time executive director, and were looking to approach GCF for funding of the new position. After some further conversation, I recommended two things: First, engage a knowledgeable, independent consultant to sort out and advise strategies for addressing all the growth issues; and second, earnestly consider and explore an affiliation with a larger, performing arts organization with a fully staffed infrastructure in place.
I am delighted to report that after engaging a team of great consultants, negotiating a mutually beneficial alliance with a much larger organization, and not hiring an executive director, the outcomes are outstanding. The fledgling group is tapping into a full range of administrative supports, including marketing, ticketing, concert logistics, financial management, accounting, fundraising, payroll and technology. Unburdened of these administrative responsibilities, the talented and passionate director has been able to lift the organization’s art form to new and exciting heights.
I encourage my fellow funders and our community’s service providers to seek constructive, respectful and honorable relationships. Together, examine strategies for building capacity in agency leadership or strengthening an organization through board engagement and staff structure. Uncover tactics for stabilizing the financial condition by increasing earned and/or contributed income, and accumulating an operating reserve. Assess methods for better communicating and positioning services to prospective consumers and other funders. Explore the possibilities of affiliating with like-minded service providers in mutually beneficial ways.
I believe it is critical for funders to fill the role of supporter and encourager in honor of the passion for service. To be clear, this doesn’t translate to simply cutting a check and extending “best wishes in your endeavors.” Rather, the supportive role reflects thoughtful, informed and relevant advice and guidance. The encouraging role might even include some challenging ideas and a bit of prodding. All of this with a common goal of strengthening the service sector as providers go about the work of improving people’s lives and enhancing our life together in community.
From my view, the service provider / funder relationship is priceless. It presents an extraordinary opportunity to go shoulder-to-shoulder and capitalize on the gifts, talents and resources of both parties to do good.
Honor the passion!
Jim Huizenga is retiring at the end of February after 12 years as a program officer for The Greater Cincinnati Foundation. He also served 15 years in grantmaking as manager of the Charitable Services Group at PNC Bank.