The benefits—and challenges—of working across program teams surfaced tensions between the urgent need to work across sectors and long-held grantmaking practices structured by content area.
Photo courtesy of the City of Providence
In the words of The Kresge Foundation’s President and CEO, Rip Rapson, “Foundations may organize their activities vertically in terms of fields of interest, but people live their lives horizontally.” In other words, the issues that Kresge partners are addressing in their communities don’t always fall neatly into one foundation program area. Complex issues require organizations to come at them in different ways and with different resources. One tool Kresge uses to respond to the many facets of communities’ challenges and solutions is cross-team grantmaking, which involve financial and intellectual contributions from multiple Kresge programs in order to enable cross-sector, multi-disciplinary work among nonprofit partners.
As Kresge’s cross-team practice grew in the last five years, staff realized that they had never explicitly tested the hypothesis that their partners would value this form of support more or differently than others; nor had the foundation formally explored the internal barriers and facilitators to collaborating more intentionally across program areas. Kresge felt that both its own staff and others in the field would benefit from a formal exploration of these questions. They wanted to know two sides of the story:
How is this collaborative approach to grantmaking and greater degree of internal collaboration working from the point of view of Kresge staff? What enables or inhibits it?
Do grantees uniquely benefit from cross-team grantmaking? If so, how?
Exploratory interviews for evaluation planning: In any cross-disciplinary, cross-sector effort, vital tacit knowledge and other intangible factors such as personal relationships, untested assumptions of shared meanings and goals, and individual understandings of intersectoral work impact both processes and outcomes. We sought to surface these factors early on, in our evaluation planning, by interviewing a selection of key participants and other stakeholders—both foundation staff and grant recipients—to reflect on the range of variables they believed should be factored into our evaluation. In these interviews, we surfaced a key learning question: whether and how cross-team grantmaking facilitates the kind of funder-grantee relationship that generates trust, power-sharing, and learning with grantees. We laid this frame over both of our areas of inquiry: the grantmaking process for Kresge staff, and the experience of the grant(s) from nonprofit partners.
Visual methodologies for tough-to-measure outcomes: With this frame in mind, we began to design data collection methods that would generate insight into our key questions, with all the nuance and depth of the various contexts that nonprofit partners and Kresge staff were working in. We tapped two methods in particular:
Photo-inspired interviews: For a select number of interviews with nonprofit
partners, we requested that they share a photo or image that best represented the multi-disciplinary or cross-sector collaboration supported by Kresge’s cross-team funding. In our interviews, we used the photos as an entry point into the specifics of how the funding helped or hindered their ability to fulfill their mission. Overwhelmingly, nonprofit partners described their collaborative work as difficult to fund—and Kresge’s support as critical to their missions, not just in terms of dollars, but in the important connections Kresge staff facilitated to funders and others in their networks doing complementary work.
Rich pictures: In this in-person activity, we guided a group of Kresge staff in
1) drawing their own informal sketches of how the cross-team grant process unfolded and 2) identifying and discussing themes within and across pictures with the whole group. These visual-based activities helped us unpack some of the un- or under-articulated ideas stakeholders had about their work. When most of our day-to-day work involves words—talking, writing, reading—using this different sense or modality helped us generate surprising new insights.
Collective sensemaking and strategizing: We brought together data from these methods, as well as a Kresge staff survey—at the beginning of the project—and focus group—at the end of our data collection to probe at questions that emerged with previous methods. Our findings clearly pointed to the special value of cross-team grantmaking and the critical gaps they fill for funding work that sits at the intersections of sectors or disciplines. We also learned that the process of initiating and stewarding cross-team grants often demands more time, administrative support, and money than single-issue area grants. But when Kresge staff were able to find a process that worked, they benefited from the rich learning and strategizing that happened with their colleagues’ new perspectives in the mix.
We learned that the resources required for cross-team grantmaking—and staff’s feeling of time and financial resource-scarcity—compelled many foundation staff to seek justifying evidence of impact in the short-term, despite the challenges inherent in measuring unpredictable, complex, and collaborative cross-sector work. This challenge—seeking measurable, systemic change within the lifecycle of a grant—is not unique to cross-team grants nor even to grantmaking more generally at Kresge; much of the philanthropic field also struggles with this challenge. Ultimately, this report prompted broader conversations at the foundation (one of which we facilitated during the foundation’s annual forum), in which staff could discuss the cost-to-benefit ratio of various types of cross-team grantmaking, as well as refine teams’ thinking about them as one key part of Kresge’s overall portfolio of investment strategies.
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