Bookmark and Share

Work in Progress

The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Friday Note: "It's Not You, It's Us." 

May 2, 2014 — By Ruth Levine

One of the conversations most dreaded by grantees and foundation staff alike is the one that signals the end of a long-term relationship due to a change in a funder’s strategy. It’s the moment when carefully cultivated relationships give way to a foundation’s occasional need to rethink and reinvent, whether because of changes inside or outside that institution’s walls. The “it’s not you, it’s us” conversation can leave everyone feeling miserable. It can also be a moment of mutual liberation and opportunities to move forward.

The Global Development and Population Program has had our fair share of those conversations over the past few years. For example, the Foundation realized a few years ago that the resources available in the international agriculture and trade portfolio were not commensurate with the ambitious goals we had laid out; we phased out of relationships with a dozen or so grantees. Last year, we began implementing a new international women’s reproductive health strategy. That has brought some hard conversations with people in organizations that have achieved much, but whose work no longer aligns with our aims. And this is the final year of new grant making for two special initiatives—Quality Education in Developing Countries and Reducing Abortion Need. We were clear about the time-limited nature of these initiatives from the beginning, but somehow it doesn’t really hit home until we start talking about the final grant.

I’ve been part of many of those conversations, and learned that a funder owes a grantee three things: significant lead time, acknowledgement of contributions made, and an extremely clear message that the grant will not be renewed. Our practice is to provide a phase-out grant of at least one year, in as flexible a form as possible, to permit the organization to gracefully phase out work and/or undertake activities that increase the chances that others will step in. We acknowledge contributions made not just in the recent past, but over the whole period of working together, which may be a decade or more. This is a shared history to reflect on and be proud of. Most importantly, we strive to be crystal clear that this will be the final grant, even at the risk of sounding undiplomatic. Tempting as it is to hedge, to leave a little room open for hope, to soften the blow, in the end the best way to honor our work together is to tell it like it is—and then put it in writing so the information can be shared with others, and used as the basis for realistic planning.

I’ve learned something else. It turns out that phasing out support is itself, paradoxically, one way to help organizations move to the next level. When a funder stops supporting a particular program, the grantee is forced to consider whether the work is in fact worthwhile and fully aligned with the organization’s core mission. If the answer is no, then pulling the plug on a distracting effort can be a blessing. If the answer is yes, the grantee is highly motivated to find new funding. We’ve seen time and again that organizations manifest a latent entrepreneurial streak when faced with the words “final grant.” It’s particularly gratifying when we hear that our support has helped to build capacity for research, training, service delivery, or advocacy that is now central to the organization’s mission, and that the leadership is committed to sustaining that capacity through other means.

No one looks forward to these conversations. But changes like this can, in the end, help all of us look forward.