Walking Common Ground With An Extraordinary Grant Maker Moving On

What follows is a muted appeal and celebration just sent off to a long time activist and champion for change who is leaving the philanthropic sector to work at the grass roots.

Hi there,

Surely has been a long while since you and I communicated, so here’s hoping that this finds you and yours safe and well in these strange and strained times.

I’m also grateful to another member of the foundation staff for connecting with me. It was she who called back to let me know I could still reach you in view of your leaving the foundation to pursue your stated quest for renewal — so remarkably well represented in your parting letter. 

That letter resonated for me in many respects. For example, you’re coming to conclude that much of organized philanthropy has not led to systemic change— despite your foundation’s efforts to do its part — is yet another credible and needed perspective. Who would know better than you? This offered in view of my having read in the last year or so Winners Take All, by Anand Giridharadas, that in turn led me to Decolonizing Wealth by Edgar Villanueva and Just Giving by Rob Reich. 

As you put it, change is at hand, and given our unfolding circumstances writ large it strikes me as inevitable. My muses these days, Carolyn Baker, Dave Pollard, Catherine Ingram, Michael Dowd, among others, all concur that those of us concerned about where we’re all headed need to respond by embracing service to others in a meaningful community setting. In that regard, I surely do understand and laud your yearning to work on a community-based and local level. 

This allows me to relate that my version of responding emerges in this self- published book now in your hands. It is aimed at people who do or long to do what you’re about to do. I struggled to get it right, stumbling my way through its creation, mistakes and all, hence the Revised Edition. I am proud of it at last and think of it as my legacy after those years among people in and around nonprofits. 

It’s the culmination of the writing that has always been part and parcel of my work, whether writing proposals for a Community Action Agency during LBJ’s ill-fated Great Society or Resource Manuals for grant seekers while a Program Officer at the California Community Foundation  — when you and I first met.

It is intended to reflect the collective wisdom aggregated from my experiences, especially when on the road conducting all those workshops about going after resources for folks drawn to the allure of grants, the most respectable of whom represented grassroots organizations struggling to improve the quality of life in their communities. 

Without getting into the details — because I want you to read it — the book challenges much of what passes for conventional wisdom as regards the never-ending business of pursuing resources to keep nonprofits going while also offering a sensible, strengthening alternative to the ludicrous, persistent canard known as grantwriting

The book is clearly a niche publication, so much of the lore of marketing books doesn’t work well for me. I’ve had to focus down on target audiences, one of which is grant making organizations such as the foundations you and I have been associated with. 

In this regard, I’ve suggested to representatives of such entities that there are a couple of strategic options where bulk buying my book and making it available makes sense. 

The first – and seems to me most obvious — is couched in the reality that most grant makers eventually tie off their commitments to the organizations they have supported. (Your foundation’s four-year wind down is certainly another example in effect.) Providing current grant recipients with my book, which emphasizes diversified sources of financial support and internal strengthening, strikes me as solid evidence of a level of technical assistance that qualitatively exceeds grant making per se. And reflects well on the grant maker. 

Next, I can visualize the value of a grant maker making the book something akin to required reading for any organization approaching it for funding or, for that matter, any outfit that has received its support previously. 

In all events, were such transactions to occur, wouldn’t they also enhance one aspect of another topic that’s getting a lot of proper attention nowadays, that of fostering egalitarian partnerships between funders and the would-be funded? 

My attempts, alas, to persuade the outfits with the money to consider any of these prospects have fallen on unseeing eyes, so to speak. I’ve reached out to several foundations with which I’ve worked as a consultant or trainer, as well as some that where we appear to share similar values, to no avail, often with not so much as a response in kind. (The one exception was the local community foundation that purchased 20 for a leadership class it was sponsoring.) 

It’s discouraging, at the least, all the more because I have a hard time imagining that anyone reading the book wouldn’t agree that it’s a serious piece of work. It also gets me to wondering if this isn’t a microcosmic version of foundation status quo to which you refer in your letter? 

At any rate, in considering this lengthy discourse, be assured that, at my age, I have learned to set aside what I consider the tyranny of expectations. I’ll be content to imagine that you took this all seriously enough to read the book and to consider it a worthwhile endeavor. If more than that ensues, even better yet. 

I know it has been eminently worth my while to take the time to think through, reach out to you this way, and to now wish you the best in your courageous unfolding endeavors. 


Harvey B. Chess
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