How to plan and execute an authentic convening between a funder and its grantees? by Joel Gutierrez, Houa Lee and Nate Madden

Greetings! We are Joel Gutierrez and Houa Lee of ORS Impact, and Nate Madden of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation (EMKF), the evaluation and learning team for the EMKF’s 2019 Inclusion Open grant portfolio that seeks to support programs that remove barriers to entrepreneurial success for communities systemically left behind.

Recently, we were invited to participate in a successful grantee convening in St. Paul, MN. Grantees reported a very positive experience of authentic engagement with EMKF and other organizations.

As evaluators who are often invited to convenings, this experience is rare. Convenings hosted by funders can be top-down. Agendas are packed. Days start at 7am and go late into the evening. Sessions can be more like lectures than learning opportunities. And at the end of it, participants feel tired and deflated. EMKF’s convening took a different approach.

“Providing money is only one tool philanthropy has to support organizations on the ground.  We believe strongly in the power of in-person convenings to accelerate grantee impact by providing space for organizations to candidly learn from each other and build allies in the field.” – Natalie Self, Program Officer, EMKF.

To ensure the gathering was purposeful for foundation staff and grantees, the planning team had a few goals:

  1. Develop authentic and trusted relationships through demonstrating transparency. The foundation is shifting its Entrepreneur Support Organization (ESO) strategy from a national scope to a regional one. Before arriving, program officers shared the change with grantees individually. The working session of the convening kicked off with staff explaining the decision, celebrating past successes, and sharing the potential opportunity of the current grant cycle. Of convening survey respondents, all reported their trust in other attending organizations increased.
  2. Center the convening around cross-sharing, networking, and learning. To emphasize the importance of cross-learning and sharing, EMKF invited previous and current grantees to participate. Sessions were centered around grantees’ experiences in their respective organizations, allowing them to lead conversations by sharing their learnings, successes, and challenges with each other.  Among survey respondents, 76% reported learning something new from the convening.
  3. Limit top-down facilitation, presentations, and overbooked agendas. The foundation hired outside consultants to help facilitate and plan the convening, minimizing the funder-grantee power dynamic. The agenda used interactive sessions where participants had various options to choose from. Both evening activities took place at local art and museum institutions with an exhibit and show centered around social justice. Many participants highlighted their appreciation for the overall flow of the convening, with one saying, “The art event was powerful and so helpful to have on the first night to set the tone. I did also appreciate the facilitators! Thanks to Kauffman for approaching grantees with gratitude and care as opposed to supplicants, which many funders do.”

This convening served as a model for our work as evaluators of this portfolio. We plan to carry this experience forward by emphasizing cross-learning and placing the experiences and expertise of organizations and the communities they serve at the center of the evaluation.

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