What Grantee Inclusion Means to the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation

The Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation faces a significant reduction in its annual grantmaking dollars. In light of this shift, the foundation feels it is critical to hear from its grantees about what the foundation can do to remain a key partner and further the nonprofits’ work despite a smaller annual budget.

To address this challenge, BCBSNCF is participating in GEO’s Change Incubator. Danielle Breslin, vice president of the foundation, delves into what grantee inclusion means to BSBCNCF and how the foundation will collaborate with its grantees in the future.

How have you included the grantee perspective in the past?

Danielle Breslin: Up to this point, our inclusion of grantee perspective has been varied. We’ve tried different things over the past several years, things that have prompted us to make changes, yet I can’t say we are always intentional and that’s where I want us to be.

For example, in 2010 we employed CEP’s Grantee and Applicant Perception Reports, and based on what we learned we created a structured process for providing feedback to declined applicants and also streamlined our application process by moving everything online. On a smaller scale, we survey participants following various trainings and programs that we offer. Several years ago we did the Interaction Institution for Social Change’s Facilitative Leadership training as a staff and we had grantees there with us. It was a great experience because we came out of it with common language and great tools. However, what we heard from our grantees was, “Gosh, if I had another person from my organization with me, they could help me apply takeaways from the training when I come home, and keep me on track and accountable.” We took that feedback to heart, so now when we provide this training we support organizations to attend as a team.

Be okay with being uncomfortable. Be prepared, be vulnerable and be honest. Get yourself ready to hear things you don’t want to hear.

More recently we employed the concept of a design team when developing our Community-Centered Health Initiative. We brought together a group of clinical and community stakeholders and engaged them in a process to provide input into the design of the initiative. We wanted insight from the communities on what would be most helpful to make this initiative successful.

What tools or resources helped you start thinking about grantee inclusion?

DB: Project Streamline’s Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted from Purpose publication from the Grant Managers Network helped us start thinking about our work from a grantee perspective. We changed what questions we put on our application and right-sized requirements to make sure that if we were asking for something, we would use it. Instead of lengthy Word documents, we ask grantees to share their results in a brief PowerPoint presentation template.

Also, we try to be flexible; sometimes when we’ve done joint funding, we will accept an applicant’s narrative for another funder, thereby lessening the burden on the nonprofit.

We also read GEO’s Do Nothing About Me Without Me, which gave us a lot of food for thought. It highlighted places where we could improve, and made us put ourselves in our grantees’ shoes. We’d ask ourselves, “If they put this in a presentation for us, can they repurpose it for something else? Will it help them be more attractive to other funders? What are the different levels of engagement?”

What made you want to join the Change Incubator? It seems like you’ve already done some work with building relationships with your grantees, so why did you want to reevaluate how you’ve been including them?

DB: We recognize it’s really important to include grantees, but it’s another thing to make the space for them to be heard. You have to be very intentional about it and that’s hard. It’s not like we have built in our processes “here is where we hear from grantees.” Having the opportunity to do a project where that was the focal point will take time, but it will make things better.

To be honest, the Change Incubator was a way to keep us accountable. Grantee inclusion is a body of work that we all know is important but we never prioritized it. We needed the support of thought partners and outside pressure to stay focused. We were eager to learn from others and learn about best practices to incorporate grantee voice in your work in an authentic way, instead of saying, “They took a survey, they’ve been included.” You don’t want it to be another check in the box. It’s easy to push grantee inclusion aside and not give it the attention that it deserves.

What is your Change Incubator project and what has the process for implementing the project been thus far?

DB: We are in a period where our annual grant budget will decrease by 40 to 50 percent. Our challenge is to maintain relevance and determine how we can leverage the non-grantmaking aspects of our work to continue to deliver value. While we recognize that often what nonprofits need most is money, the reality is we won’t have as much of that as we’ve had in the past few years. How do we build the strength we have in non-grant offerings in a way that our grantees and North Carolina nonprofits truly value?

Having grantee voice in this evolution is so important to us. On one hand we can say, we can do 50 percent less and not take a minute to pause, or we can look at it as an opportunity to do some things differently and try some new things, but do it with the grantees at the table and commit to doing something that we know will bring them value because they were part of the decision-making process.

To this day, the work has been focused on planning and thinking – we’re just hitting the point of execution. We are doing the CEP survey again in May. We also plan to host a series of conversations with grantees and key partners to gain insight into what would be most helpful to them aside from grant dollars.

I’m excited to start those conversations, but I’m sure there will be hiccups along the way. When we do hit those bumps, we have the support of GEO, Cambridge Leadership Associates and other cohort members from the Heinz Endowments, Episcopal Health Foundation and the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation. It’s still an evolving component, but there is value in knowing that other foundations are grappling with similar types of issues and having those relationships to call on.

Grantee inclusion isn’t easy and takes a lot of self-reflection and work. Where have the challenges been?

DB: It takes time to build the grantee inclusion process into your timeline. It’s also hard when you ask for input and have to be realistic about what you can actually do. When we’ve talked to grantees in the past, sometimes we may hear great ideas, but for a variety of reasons there are some things we couldn’t do. It was kind of foreseeable; you can’t make everyone happy. You need to be upfront and open with them and say, “We’re here to hear what you have to say and we may not be able to act on every idea or comment we hear.” It’s a balance between validating what they’ve said and realistically what we can act on.

What about the Change Incubator? Where have the challenges been with that process?

DB: There have been various challenges with our Change Incubator project. First, each group is limited to three participants and so the Change Incubator team feels the pressure to bring back what we learned, transfer knowledge and justify what we are doing. We also had to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. The project idea we had coming in to the Change Incubator was related to knowledge management and that idea was challenged – we were asked, “Is that the most important thing right now?” However, because we then modified our original project in a way that brought more people into the decision, there was more buy in from the entire staff. I’ve felt pressure to help my team realize the Change Incubator is a good use of time and resources, and we are going to get to a better place in the end. I’ve even questioned that at times and it’s hard.

Right now though we are in a good place with understanding how to best utilize the resources available to us as part of the Change Incubator. We know this is going to take a lot of focused resources; however, at the end of the day it is truly going to transform the way we operate as a foundation. This is a real-life pressing issue we are facing, but now we have the support of GEO and CLA. They are really good at helping us answer our own questions by asking us the right questions. They provide space to allow us to figure out the answers ourselves; and with time, distance, and reflection we appreciate that they don’t give us the answers. This work has absolutely helped me to see my work in a different way.

What would you recommend to other grantmakers that want to reassess their relationships with their grantees?

DB: Be okay with being uncomfortable. Be prepared, be vulnerable and be honest. It will take time and you will have to find the time to make this a priority. If you’re not consistent, you won’t get as much out of it as you would otherwise.

Get yourself ready to hear things you don’t want to hear. As part of our project for the Change Incubator, I heard things I didn’t want to, but it makes you stronger and a better organization. Our grantees are more than a recipient of funds. We need them to be strong, viable organizations and be included in the process. If not for the grantees we support, we couldn’t do what we do.