From Fixed to Flexible Reality

Picking up on some of the great thoughts that Holly shared in her post about Spaciousness and Experiments in Abundance, I want to share how the Future Forward process has helped me move from a mindset of:

“Fixed Reality: Reality is fixed. There aren’t enough time or resources”


“Flexible Reality: Reality is what you make of it. If we think outside the box, we’ll see ways to create time and resources. To do that, we need to be conscious of power and equity.”

This is one of the “mindset spectrums” we identified trying to nurture in our early set-up of Future Forward, and it has helped turn me into a more responsive and helpful grant maker.

Too often in the philanthropic world, we believe that our reality is fixed. We are not trained nor do we have any accountability asking us to push the envelope or question institutional norms. So we often accept our institutional practices and habits as a given, and orient ourselves around what our institutions currently do, rather than what our customers (aka, the grantees we serve) actually need.

In an earlier experiment to this one (Aligning for Impact), General Service Foundation’s beloved and dearly missed leader, Lani Shaw, said something that sticks with me more than 2 years later – that we all say we can’t fund this or we can’t fund that, but in her 20+ years in philanthropy, she saw program officers move mountains within their institutions when they had a will and a passion. This encapsulates the concept of flexible reality, and I feel blessed to have operated for a decade under a Director who valued this mindset.

As a result, GSF is already a very responsive funder committed to providing “more than money” to our core grantees. But there is always more we can do, as evidenced by Holly’s thoughtful leadership on Future Forward! When I began the Future Forward process and started really owning what it would feel like to be in an abundant relationship with my own grantees, I remembered all the tools in my “more than money” toolbox and with a little window of spaciousness this spring, decided to try out a fully abundant approach.

  • With one grantee – a chronically under-resourced group with a tremendous leader – this meant more than doubling our general support grant and creating a small team of peer funders to rally around the group and look for new funding opportunities. It’s meant frequent calls with this peer team, ongoing consultation with the grantee, outreach and follow-up to potential new donors, creating a funding tracking spreadsheet, and drafting a memo to my peers about why this is a moment for investment. I just learned that this organization got two sizable new general support grants, just 6 months after we started this process, that will help bring in capacity and lift work off the overtaxed staff. Hooray! It took some of my time, but it was a rewarding way to use my position of power in the philanthropic community to lift up an organization and a leader that needed visibility.
  • With another grantee my role has been smaller and behind the scenes. Recognizing a promising new leader who is doing a remarkable job overcoming past challenges at an organization, I have found ways to support this person’s path with funding and personal time, including credentialing the group to my peers. I don’t know the external outcomes yet, but the leader has expressed feeling recognized and seen for her efforts, a win in itself.

Both of these leaders come from diverse backgrounds and in Colorado where my portfolio operates, sustaining strong leaders of color has been a challenge. I’ll admit that my focus on these two organizations this spring may have taken some of my time away from other grantees and projects – trying to be abundant with my time for every group at once would indeed be impossible – but in questioning my assumptions/practices about how I spend my time, I’m pleased that I might have inspired a bit more leveling of power and equity in small ways.

All of this is an example of what I hope we can do more of at GSF and in philanthropy – question our own assumptions about what we do and why we do it. As Holly summed up, “I am now more curious when I think I see a constraint. Am I assuming limitations that might not exist? What other boundaries might I challenge?” I would add the following questions: How can we evaluate our own portfolios to see where we can increase a relationship of abundance with our grantees? How can we show grantees what an abundant relationship looks like, so that they can push for the same from other grantmakers?

On this last question, one of our close colleagues, the Whitman Institute recently found out from a survey of their grantees that at least one organization began rethinking how it wanted to relate to all funders because of the spacious and reciprocal relationship it felt with Whitman. What a beautiful statement of impact! I want my grantees to get beyond what feels like a fixed reality – that relationships with your funders will never be great – and push for the relationships they want. I hope that in my one-on-one interactions with grantees, they start to realize more potential from all of their funder relationships.

I took inspiration on this from a recent article by Paul Shoemaker of Social Venture Partners entitled “Re-Constructing Philanthropy from the Outside-In“. Paul writes:

Communities In Schools ( undertook an intentional, at times difficult, process to develop the right kind of relationships with its funders, by being steadfast about the kind of funding they needed (and rejecting funding that didn’t fit their needs) and it has made a huge long-term impact on serving more kids more effectively; it can be done.

It can be done. What more can we do to help make it happen? What have others done to change your relationship with grantees? Please share your stories!

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