Change Incubator Lessons Learned

Eighteen months ago, GEO launched the Change Incubator, an intensive cohort program that required a significant amount of time and resources for GEO and the four participating foundations. Through this pilot program, we placed some big bets that we hoped would inform our work moving forward. Our vision was shifting the field of philanthropy so that grantmakers’ relationships with grantees were more authentic and inclusive. Despite grantmakers’ best intentions to engage grantees in their work and build strong relationships, many don’t feel they’re including their grantees in the best way. They wonder if they’re asking their grantees the right questions and truly listening to their answers; they struggle with the best way to engage grantees to inform strategy, co-create programs, or take part in decision-making; or they question whether or not they have a relationship with their grantees that allows for open and honest dialogue. We believe improving the quality of relationships in this way will result in greater adoption of grantmaking practices that have maximum benefit to nonprofits. In other words, when grantmakers can have open and honest relationships with grantees, grantees will be more candid about their needs and grantmakers will tailor their support to be more beneficial to nonprofits.

At last month’s closing retreat for the Change Incubator, participants reflected on their own learning journeys, and we lifted up some common themes across the teams. While we learned a lot about grantee inclusion, we learned perhaps even more about change management and leadership. Here are five key lessons learned from our pilot program, along with examples from our participating foundations.

There is indeed a connection between stronger relationships and smarter grantmaking practice. Change Incubator participants agreed that strengthening relationships with grantees and creating more opportunities for conversation and feedback resulted in changes in grantmaking practice. For example, the Heinz Endowments’ Transformative Arts Process has oversight from an advisory board of grantees and beneficiaries. Building stronger relationships with advisory board members has led the foundation to provide more multiyear funding, general operating support and larger grants.

In order to achieve real change, engagement and inclusion must extend into communities. The best solutions to complex challenges come when the people closest to the problem have a hand in shaping the solutions. The Change Incubator focused on how grantmakers can better engage grantees in their work, but participants rightly raised that this is just one step in the process. Nearly all of the Change Incubator participants have mechanisms for engaging residents in their work, and others have prioritized this as a next step. Just as grantmakers need to build their capacity to be more inclusive in their work, it is also important for nonprofits to develop the skills for effective community engagement. The Episcopal Health Foundation works intentionally to build the capacity of grantees, congregations and other partners to engage community members in identifying the priority issues and making decisions on how to address them.

Change in external work (like grantee inclusion) requires internal work as well. One unexpected outcome from this pilot was the amount of time the participating teams spent reflecting on their own organizational cultures, values and norms. While GEO has always touted the value of “walking the talk,” we didn’t fully anticipate the level of internal work that would be required to create the internal environment for change to take hold. Also surprising was the commonality of experience across foundation teams. It was encouraging for participants to see they were not alone in questioning former ways of working as they looked for openings to advance change in their organizations. A big theme across the teams was the importance of vision and values to guide the work of grantee inclusion. For the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, a focus on vision has been instrumental in helping the foundation pick the most strategic partners.

Change involves loss, vulnerability and courage. There is risk involved in a foundation opening itself up to more feedback from grantees. What if you don’t like what you hear? Katie Eyes from the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation described it as opening Pandora’s Box. As a result of this experience, we are firm believers that change does not happen without discomfort. Change inherently involves letting go of some things to make space for new ways of working, and for some this represents a loss. We watched our participants work through their own resistance—and sometimes fear. We watched them take incredible risks, such as having the courageous conversations many of us put off for far too long. Sometimes these risks went well. Other times they backfired. Incredibly, in every failure that came about, we saw the participants learn from that failure, change their approach, and try again—a real testament to the courage that was within that group and is within all of us.

Organizational change work is leadership work, and anyone can lead. While the focus of the Change Incubator was on changing practices within organizations, the greatest changes happened within the individual participants. We are grateful to our partners from Cambridge Leadership Associates and their Adaptive Leadership framework, which guided our work. In adaptive leadership, leadership is defined as the work you choose to do and the approach you choose to do it. It’s not about title or position. For our participants, none of whom were CEOs, the Change Incubator offered an opportunity for them to exercise greater leadership from their current role. They developed skills and gained access to tools they can use throughout their careers.

While our Change Incubator pilot has come to a close, we feel we’ve only scratched the surface of these lessons learned. We will continue to dig into authentic engagement and inclusion, change management and leadership through our programming. And we look forward to continuing to explore these ideas with the GEO community.