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PULSE OF PHILANTHROPY: A Collaborative Approach to Philanthropy

Foundations and major donors often ask the charities they support to collaborate with one another, but far less common are those same funders using a collaborative process when making their granting decisions in the first place. Doing so requires the funder to have sufficient humility to recognize that true expertise is typically not found within the foundation itself, but rather is with those professionals on the frontlines of the issue and in the lived experience of everyday people.  That’s what makes the work of the Women’s Fund of Door County so innovative.

In 2016, the leaders of the Women’s Fund wanted to determine how best to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in a single project that would improve the economic security of women in our community. Since the Women’s Fund is a part of the Door County Community Foundation, our team facilitated the process, thereby giving us a birds-eye view of the work of these forward thinking women. They called it the “Community Collaborative Grant.”

Rather than just sit back and wait for whatever applications might arrive, the Women’s Fund convened a design team to study the issue and determine how best to deploy their grant dollars. The team started with several key leaders of the Women’s Fund, but quickly expanded to include frontline non-profit and government human service professionals whose organizations assist women who are struggling. Human resource staff from a few large companies, and owners of a couple of small businesses, participated because they often are the first to see when their employees are having financial trouble. Other participants included school personnel, public health professionals and clergy.  

The design team spent months studying statistics, looking at trends and talking with women who had real life experience with financial struggles. They looked at successful efforts that had a meaningful impact in other communities, but they had to balance that against what was achievable in Door County and commensurate with the amount of money they had to spend.  

After a year of work, the Women’s Fund ultimately made an investment in Northeast Wisconsin Technical College to fund individual development accounts (a kind of savings account with a matching component) and a case manager to work with adult women who were returning to technical college to learn new skills that would lead to a better-paying job. The project was so exciting that the Women’s Fund made a second large grant to it three years later. 

That’s a fascinating story in and of itself, but this isn’t about the success of the project. It’s the story of the innovative process used by the Women’s Fund.

It requires a significant amount of courage for a funder to use a collaborative process when awarding a grant because they are ceding control of some of the decision-making. The funder’s focus is then less on identifying a specific solution and more on building a robust process, bringing the voices of the stakeholders into the room, then collectively identifying the best path forward. This requires tremendous humility and faith that good people, working together, will yield the most impactful outcome. Sadly, in my experience, when a funder controls a lot of money, humility and faith are often in short supply.

Of course, having faith doesn’t mean that funders like the Women’s Fund don’t ask challenging questions before making a substantial investment in a project. There always needs to be a thorough evaluation of the financial health of any grant recipient, the independence and strength of its governance structure, and its programmatic ability to implement the proposed idea. What made the work of the Women’s Fund so impressive was their willingness to roll up their sleeves and spend countless hours working side by side with the organizations they fund to understand the issue, explore possible solutions and identify a pathway forward in a collaborative way.

This is one of the reasons that the Door County Community Foundation is celebrating BJ Cassidy, Orlaine Gabert, Sharon Lutsey, Sally O’Brien, Barb Perloff, Lolly Rataczak, Jane Stevenson and Vicki Wilson (collectively, the Women’s Fund “Building Her Future” Leadership Team) as the 2024 Philanthropists of the Year. They completely redefined the Women’s Fund and created a legacy of innovation that lives on to this day.  

The current leadership of the Women’s Fund recently decided to launch the next generation of the Community Collaborative Grant, building upon the collaborative decision-making process used by their predecessors. It appears that courage, humility, and faith still thrive within the leaders of Women’s Fund of Door County. 

Bret Bicoy is President & CEO of the Door County Community Foundation.  Contact him at [email protected].