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Connecting Beyond The Check: Building Grantor/Grantee Trust

Building grantor/grantee trust is a process that goes far beyond writing a check. It takes intention and thoughtful connection. A panel of private funders share stories about unique ways they are bringing community members into the grantmaking process and building better relationships with their nonprofit partners.

From community involvement to focus groups to centering racial equity in their granting work, these funders are tackling difficult challenges with small changes while working within the constraints of their “traditional” funder role. Instead of saying, “we can’t change because we have to answer to our board,” they’re saying, “we can make small, creative changes when we are patient and focus on the outcomes the board expects instead of the things we’ve always done.”


Danyelle O’Hara | Community Relationship Officer, Mortenson Family Foundation

Ambar Hanson | Community Relationship Officer – Philanthropy, Mortenson Family Foundation

Karyn McKelvey | Grants and Program Manager, Laird Norton Family Foundation


  • Doing away with written applications in favor of a video call to reduce the applicant burden
  • Implementing declination grants of up to $2,500 for applicants who don’t receive funding
  • Bringing community members onto grant committees to represent populations served
  • Understanding how to move slowly but with intention



0 00:00:01:22

We have three representatives from two of our client organizations with us today, and they’re going to be sharing their stories of connection through the lens of their work and experience piloting creative programs that were designed to foster connection with community members and their grantees while effectively bringing their board along on the way.

0 00:00:19:01

So I want to start off with a little bit about me. My name is Meredith Lee Morgan, and I’m a client success consultant for Fountain Technologies. In this role, I help existing clients optimize how they use found and streamline asylum system to best fulfill their mission as they grow or as their funding strategies evolve. And in a past life, I was the branch manager for a founding client that also prioritized grantee centric funding.

0 00:00:41:10

So I’m really excited to be joining you all here to learn and to be your facilitator with with looking at the cool work that our speakers are doing as they work to build real relationships with their grantee partners.

0 00:00:53:20

We’re joined today by Karen Mckelvie, the grants and program manager of the Laird Norton Family Foundation. Amber Hanson, Community Relations relationship officer for the Mortenson Family Foundation, and Danielle O’Hara, community relationship officer with the Philanthropy Focus. Also at the Mortenson Family Foundation. Karen, do you want to go ahead and kick us off by telling the folks a little bit more about the background of their daughter?

0 00:01:15:14

Happy to be here. I am calling in from Seattle, Washington, on the lands of the Duwamish and Coast Salish people today. Happy to be with you. So the family itself is a seventh generation family with more than 500 living family members, and about 75 of them are involved with our foundation and the giving work as a foundation.

0 00:01:38:05

Our work is kind of twofold to both support organizations that embody the shared values of the family and also to foster connection and philanthropic engagement for family members.

0 00:01:48:20

the philanthropic model we currently work on has been in place for about 15 years, and it’s really an interesting way to engage the family. So each of our five giving areas is comprised of a fund advisory committee or a FAC, as we call them, comprised of family members.

0 00:02:06:18

Any family member is eligible to join. And so each of those committees gets to meet every year, learn about philanthropy, and then make funding decisions. So each year we are making about one and a half million dollars in grants, and that’s across five primary giving areas. Our arts and education funding seeks to eliminate the educational opportunity gap through arts integration.

0 00:02:30:16

Our climate change work is currently really focused on carbon sequestration and centering climate and environmental justice. Human Services Work focuses on youth and young adults who may be involved with foster care system or legal systems and be in need of longer term support and resources in order to to move forward with their lives. We also support watershed stewardship, where watersheds are seen as kind of the organizing system to explore ecology, communities, social justice and climate change.

0 00:03:03:03

And then our fifth area is really exciting. It’s the giving area for the young people of the family. So the Sapling Fund is for family members aged 14 to 20, and it’s a chance for them to come together, to decide to decide what their philanthropic priorities are every year, and then to make grants to organizations that they bring forward.

0 00:03:21:15

So those are our five primary giving areas. And yeah, excited to talk with you more and happy to pass the mic to my colleagues Danielle and Amber.

0 00:03:32:03

I can start in, Ambar can jump in. My name is Danielle O’Hara. I’m a community relationship officer with the Mortenson Family Foundation. I manage two of our three grantmaking portfolios. We work in environment across Minnesota.

0 00:03:50:11

We work internationally in Africa and Central America, and I manage those two portfolios and we work in education in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and Ambar manages that portfolio.

0 00:04:03:07

The Mortenson family has been doing grantmaking since the late nineties but hired their first staff person, our executive director, in around 2010. And it’s at that point that we really kind of hammered out those three grantmaking areas and also developed a mission. And I’m going to pass it to Ambar to talk about the mission and the work that we’ve done around that.

0 00:04:27:19

Thanks, Daniel. Good afternoon or good and good morning, depending on where you’re at. Everyone. My name is Christina Hansen. I use she her hers pronouns. Amber and Ambar are totally fine. I’m product of a bilingual, bi cultural family and I’m a community relationship officer. Also at the Mortenson Family Foundation. Daniel spoke about our three grant program areas. The mission for the foundation, and spoke to those three can have been created about ten years ago, 12 years ago, when the first executive director came in.

0 00:05:09:02

But the mission of the foundation actually was finalized and came to fruition in 2018. And it really is about strengthening community driven approaches that advance equity, opportunity and sustainability.

0 00:05:25:17

And so those are the areas, as you can see, that then we invest in and work with communities to address and and hopefully have meaningful impact, which are the education, international and and environmental areas that we work in.

0 00:05:44:24

In addition to that, though, we also do what we call impact investments. So really putting the endowment side of the foundation to work and have about almost 80% of our assets in mission related and impact investments. So really looking at ensuring that it is going to opportunities that are for good while being also good stewards of that endowment.

0 00:06:15:07

Yeah. Awesome.

0 00:06:16:14

Thank you, guys. I, I want to start off we’ve talked a little bit in some of our pre call conversations about the the spectrum of how far folks are in this this process of trying to, you know, really revise how you think about grantmaking. And so I’d like to start with folks over at Mortenson.

0 00:06:38:24

Can you tell me some of the ways that you guys have started operationalizing some of the some of the elements of trying to build communities, support community, build relationships in your grant making nuts and bolts process?

0 00:06:51:17

So the kind of bringing community members into our grantmaking process is kind of the what and the how. And I just want to talk really briefly about the why. So Ambar mentioned that, you know, kind of equity, equitable grantmaking is one of a key areas of focus of our mission statement that was articulated in 2018.

0 00:07:15:24

And that element we have been interrogating since 2018, we’ve really been trying to understand what equitable grantmaking is since 2018, but it’s really in 2020 with the pandemic and more particularly Lee, the murder of George Floyd. And just want to remind folks that we are here in Minneapolis, that we really were pushed to operationalize action allies. What that means.

0 00:07:46:19

And for us it it meant that we really kind of wanted to drill down on how we make ourselves accountable to community. And so we have a set of commitments that we developed at that time that really we center, we center in our work, and they are making more grants and having a larger percentage of our grant making go to Bipoc led organizations, black indigenous people of color organizations, organizations that are led by black bipoc individuals, as well as organizations that are led by and for the communities they serve.

0 00:08:23:01

So that’s one of our commitments. The second commitment is doing more grantmaking in the area of systems change and advocacy. And then the third commitment that we made is centering community in our grant making processes by bringing community members into the grant making processes. And so we’ve been really, yeah, kind of working hard to kind of move in this direction in this third area, the bringing community members onto our grant making committees.

0 00:08:52:14

We piloted right away. We made the commitments in June 2020 and by the kind of end of 2020, we were thinking about how we actually do this. And so using the environmental Committee as kind of a guinea pig for this kind of a pilot, we started thinking about what does this look like? And decided to for that first we really needed to engage with community that we were in a place with the environmental program that we needed to kind of hear from community members what direction we should move.

0 00:09:32:10

Our environmental program at that time was very focused on kind of watershed protection, working at a watershed level, habitat and biodiversity conservation. And so we wanted to ask a very broad range of the community, very diverse range of the community to what extent these guidelines, the focus of our environmental portfolio aligned with our racial equity commitments. And so we had a series of focus groups.

0 00:09:58:08

We probably had kind of seven or eight conversations with maybe 70 people asking them that question and got really good, honest, open feedback, which was not very much. And the process was so enriching for us that we brought folks together again in a workshop setting to kind of prioritize some of the feedback that we got and the themes that had come out in those focus groups.

0 00:10:25:05

So that process really one gave us excellent feedback to revise our guidelines in a way that would be more aligned with our racial equity commitments and in a way that had real community voice. But it also brought us into deeper connection with the community. And through that process, we identified five people to join our environmental portfolio, our environmental committee.

0 00:10:48:03

So I paused there, ask Ambar if she wants to add anything, and there’s much more to say, but I’m sure we’ll get to it

0 00:10:55:00

and I won’t add much except to say that we did start then with the Environmental Committee. And so I have with the learnings that came from Daniel’s process started last September with a similar process in our expanding Opportunities for Children and Families program to engage the community first around our guidelines to get feedback, both because of of what Danielle shared around, are these the right guidelines, but also because we felt it was really important to make sure that we’re not inviting community members to a table that’s already been set.

0 00:11:32:09

So really engaging the community in the process of reviewing and revising our compliance, Our our guidelines was an important step before getting to this place of inviting community members to the committee. So it’s been a pretty emergent and organic process to get to where we are right now. But that community voice is really essential. There.

0 00:11:57:07

It’s really exciting that you’re looking at this in terms of thinking about the the different communities that you’re working with as far as your program areas, because there are like really rich specific things for each of these target and target issues you’re trying to solve.

0 00:12:13:15

Karen I want to I want to pull you into this conversation too. I know you guys are Portland and are doing some really exciting things as well where when you think about operationalizing some of these things in your grantmaking process, where are you guys at? Yeah, I think you wrote us and I just like so inspired by the work that Danielle and I are doing.

0 00:12:35:07

Participatory Grantmaking just sounds such a rich, rich piece of work. I look forward to hearing more. Yeah. So we in terms of the operations piece, especially over the last two years, some of the changes kind of being forced by the whole new way that we all had to do our business. But then also really being in, in connection, being in relationship a little bit differently with, with our grantee partner organizations.

0 00:13:06:08

So yeah, over the last few years, we’ve, we’ve kind of slowly stepped away from bigger, longer written proposals, you know, slowly making them shorter, more concise, maybe more customized towards returning applicants versus new applicants. And now this year, in 2022, we’re mostly doing all applications and final reporting by video calls, which I think will bring its own amount of learning.

0 00:13:32:20

I think there’s benefit to both having written pieces and and those personal conversations. But I think more of what we’re learning through the approach operationally offer an operationalizing of these things is that relationship really is at the center. So if we’re having, you know, an hour long conversation with an organization that serves as both their final report, as well as gathering information that will empower us as staff to really put forth a proposal to our committees.

0 00:14:02:14

So that is kind of all we need. Our committee members, you know, aren’t interested in long written reports. They’re not interested in long written proposals. So we’ve been able to tailor and streamline things so that we’re getting enough information. We need a staff to advocate for those organizations and represent them to our committees. And so in that way, we get a lot we have a lot of a lot of flexibility, a staff, which is which is really great to be creative.

0 00:14:30:13

A few of the other practices that we’ve brought in over time, we offer declination grants. So if we’re asking your organization as an invite only funder, if we’re showing up and saying, Hey, we want to get to know you, please do some work for us to educate us about your work, then we are going to offer at least 20 $500 for their time to participate in that process and then also for current partners, if they if we’re asking them to show up on a panel, if we’re making a site visit, if we’re doing additional engagement with them or asking for more of their time and expertise, then we’re also going to offer, you know, small

0 00:15:05:04

honorarium for for their time and expertise to spend time with us and our committee members. So those are those are a few things. We’re also this last year stepping into multiyear grants for the first time. And I think we’ll have time to talk about that a little bit later as a tool, what else was I going to mention?

0 00:15:26:10

Oh, and as were all of our committees, I appreciate my colleagues talking about that integration of really bringing equity into the center of their work. And, you know, to be totally transparent, we are three white ladies working at a family foundation that is comprised of mostly all white family members. And so that work is ongoing. And it has it has been amazing to have those conversations with committee members to help really understand why centering the people most affected by the challenges that we’re addressing need to be the ones who are at the center of the solutions and trusting them as experts and really bringing some of that language forward to engage our family members in

0 00:16:09:19

the current best practices and philanthropy. And that is that is a key part of it. So one of the one of the pieces we’re doing, we host meetings in different cities as our family members and grantee partners are kind of spread all over the country. We’re also starting to make land acknowledgment grants. So if we come to have a meeting in Minneapolis, I might reach out to the two of you and say, Hey, you know who are some of the native LED organizations you’re working with?

0 00:16:34:06

Who you know, who we could make a small contribution to in honor of being here on their land. I will stop there. Meredith, Thank you. I love the conscientiousness and the thoughtfulness that all of you are taking as you as you think about how to actually do grant making better, because it’s it’s really easy to sort of get in the way that you do things and sort of stay in that path because you’re still seeing good things happen in your communities.

0 00:17:01:09

But the the impulse to want to be better, I think is at the root of philanthropy. And it’s it’s like you said, Karen, inspiring to see it. We’ve had a few questions come in on the chat. I think I’ll start off with some to you, Karen, your most recent in terms of the types of questions that you’re asking on video, final reports and more broadly, have those shifted as well?

0 00:17:26:14

Yeah. So questions Yeah that is. Thank you for asking that we yeah I mean and it’s interesting too I named our five different giving areas and in some ways we’re trying to standardize how our processes are, but in some ways each of them almost operates like its own mini foundation because they’re different committee members. We’ve had different types of relationships with the organizations in each in each portfolio.

0 00:17:51:07

So we’re really not super, super prescriptive about those questions. I think that’s a direction that I want us to go to just be, you know, making sure that we’re gathering really same information across organizations we’re talking to. But it’s essentially even in our written final reports, was essentially, you know, tell us what went well this year. Tell us where maybe you had some challenges and, you know, share with us what you’re looking forward to in the next year.

0 00:18:19:12

What do you what do you think is coming in the next year? So pretty simple and pretty conversationally based. We’re not we’re not a funder who’s ever been really particular about collecting specific budget information. Most of our grants are general operating support. Or maybe if it’s restricted, it might just be restricted to one particular program within a larger organization.

0 00:18:42:06

So I will share our contact information. I’d be happy to pass along specific things to anyone, but for these conversations right now, it’s not super prescriptive yet that I answer that question. Meredith I think so. I think so. I actually had a question that was hoping that you might be willing to share some of your forms. So you just spoke to that, too.

0 00:19:01:15

Happy to. One other question for you, Karen, in terms of your your video applications reports, how are you compiling the info for the committee? Is it is it something that you just hand off directly or are you doing some synthesis on the program staff level? Yeah, that’s a great question. Thank you. And I would like to give credit to my coworker because she kind of piloted this with our youth giving area last year and now we’re doing it with all of our grant making areas.

0 00:19:26:18

So we are inviting organizations to join us for this time. We also open up those conversations to committee members so if they’re available, any committee member can sit in on those conversations and participate and ask questions and then we’re recording them. So generally about half hour to 45 minutes, we’re trying to keep it under an hour. So we’re recording all those conversations and then posting them on a private Vimeo site so that any any community member, if they really want to do a deep dive and learn and hear from the organization, they can listen to that recording.

0 00:19:56:22

But yes, then we as staff are taking that information as well as any follow up conversation we might have with the organization or, you know, other resources they make available from their website or social media or showing up at their events and putting that together in a shorter summary. And ultimately, we’re not the decision makers for our grants, but putting forth a recommendation to the committee to say, you know, based on what we’ve learned, based on existing relationship and how this aligns with your priorities, we might recommend you consider a grant of X amount this year.

0 00:20:30:12

So we’re we’re influencing and guiding the direction for the committee. Very cool. Sort of dovetailing over to the Mortenson folks committee sort of spring to mind the next question that we had up in the queue before you guys started inviting community members into sitting on your community or your committees, rather. What was the committee composition like?

0 00:20:55:23

the Mortenson board is made up of nine Mortenson family members, Mortenson mother, Alice Mortenson, four sons, and those four sons spouses. And so we have nine board members. And then we each of our committees have had four Mortenson family members on them.

0 00:21:14:11

And so speaking for the Environmental Committee, we had four Mortenson’s and then brought on five community members. And so we now have a nine person committee.

0 00:21:26:05

What about you, Amber?

0 00:21:27:07

So similar to Danielle, so have a different set of four, although we have one person that crosses over into some of our committees or family members and recently through the there was a question in the in the chat I saw that was about how we invited folks to come into the committee.

0 00:21:54:09

And similar to in Danielle’s process, what happened. We didn’t create a specific process for, say, until we got through the guidelines process to invite community members on committee. But what happened was that through the conversations, I think one thing that I should mention that was probably not mentioned before is that in all of our focus groups, we had board members present, and I think that was really important because, you know, when we talk about having community members on committee and you don’t know necessarily who the community is, it can feel like this, like nebulous, scary, like who is community, What does this mean?

0 00:22:38:10

Who might be coming to join us, especially when we’re talking about a family foundation where there is just that level of kind of connection and intimacy in this space. And what happened was that by virtue of the focus groups that we had, relationships started to emerge between board members and community members and leaders started to kind of surface to the top in terms of folks, that would be a really good thing to and coming on to the committees.

0 00:23:08:14

And so it kind of organically happened that some folks just started to surface in terms of bringing the level of expertise in their personal and professional experiences that were unique and kind of missing, if you will, at the at the committee level that started to surface. And so they were invited to come be part of an open house to get to know the board committee members that were there and ask questions and then vise versa, and then were invited to join the committee afterwards.

0 00:23:48:05

So that’s kind of the high level overview of what the process was to get community members on committee.

0 00:23:55:04

like on bar said you know we’re we’re looking for expertise to round out what we didn’t have.

0 00:23:59:10

But we also, you know, in addition to, you know, just kind of sectoral diversity, racial diversity, gender, geographic diversity, just diversity of all kinds, we wanted to make sure that we had people that were ready to challenge, willing to challenge and, you know, kind of ask hard questions. We wanted to make sure that we had people that were able to change their mind.

0 00:24:26:10

We wanted to make sure that we had people that, you know, kind of we saw able to kind of build on one another’s ideas. And so we also, in addition to looking for diversity and expertise, we were looking for good community, good community members as well, and kind of tried to think about different attributes that would lead us to that.

0 00:24:47:18

That’s a great way to think about this in terms of trying to make the conversations productive, especially when there is some inherent power balance issues on that committee. I’m sure with the family being in the minority at that point, which I’m sure was an interesting thing, I, I want to move us on because I think a lot of the questions coming in are moving towards the lessons that you all have learned from this work as far as thinking about lessons and also opportunities that you found that you didn’t actually anticipate as you were you were gearing up for this.

0 00:25:22:07

I kind of want to actually open the can of worms in terms of the committee composition. And how did you what tell us about what came out of that for lessons and opportunities?

0 00:25:31:06

I can go here and this is either one of us can speak to it but actually credit to Danielle because I think, you know, and we’ve had some of our board committee members share, you know, we went from 3 to 5 right?

0 00:25:50:18

And so I think it was really the conversation in the beginning with committee, with Danielle’s committee started out with thinking about the number of of committee members that should be there. And, Danielle, I think you should be probably maybe speaking more to this because I think it was wise to say let’s not talk about let’s not think about the number of people that should be on the committee.

0 00:26:16:19

Let’s just go through the process. And once we get to the other side, kind of define like the number of committee members that we want to have. And I think that that was really key and important because it wasn’t until those relationships were kind of built with community members and the board that then you have kind of the unknown become known and the excitement been building about, oh, like these are the people that we might have on our committee.

0 00:26:49:21

We want all of that, right? So I think that that’s that was really, really key. And and again, part of kind of this emergent process of like let’s there’s pieces that don’t need to necessarily be defined here. Let’s wait and be defined. Have those defined elsewhere. But I think one thing that was a huge learning was also the fact that, you know, when it comes to doing this equity work and our board has been on this equity journey, as we mentioned, since 2018, there’s a lot of things that we can do in terms of facilitated discussion and theory and having folks watch videos and read and etc..

0 00:27:32:02

But the transformation happens truly when you’re building these shared spaces between community and and between communities, right? The family community, the board community and the communities that we’re working with. And so we’re still in the in the process. And this is a never ending process transformation. But those connections were really key. We could have had a charge to staff to go and do things and then come back and report to the board.

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