Embracing Clarity and Abundance: Lessons on Communicating Our Spend Down
By: Donna Bransford, Iris Garcia, and Larry Yang
There’s a saying in philanthropy: “If you’ve worked at one foundation, you’ve worked at one foundation.” It’s a fairly obvious observation: no two funders are alike, which also means that none of our failures are exactly alike either.
For Kataly, our context is particularly different partly because the vast majority of foundations are not spending down their resources in the near future. Ultimately, grantmaking with an end date changes the dynamics between funders and grantee partners in many ways. We are still navigating the unknown, and along the way we have made missteps from which we are learning.
As the Mindfulness and Healing Justice (MHJ) team at Kataly, we support community-based mindfulness programs, teacher training and leadership development, and healing justice practices for Black and Indigenous communities, and all people of color. MHJ centers mindfulness and healing in the service of racial justice, power-building, and collective liberation for all.
Our goal as a team of practitioner-funders is to be in aligned, supportive, and balanced relationship with our grantee partners, which includes building trust, confronting power dynamics, and embracing transparency. One of the failures we have encountered that has created a learning opportunity for us has been the evolution of how we communicate with grantees about future funding from Kataly, given the reality that we will spend out within the next ten years.
Traditionally in philanthropy, grant awards to organizations grow larger over time as groups “prove their worth” to funders. This is not the case at Kataly. We often redistribute large, multi-year grants to organizations as their first grant. This is partly because we are committed to spending out our resources within a relatively short period of time, but more importantly because we are not hedging our bets. Social movements need funding that matches the scale of the powerful work they are leading, and it’s our role as a funder to redistribute those resources now.
But because of the dynamics at play in most grantmaker-grantee relationships, groups tend to expect that if things are going well, grant amounts will grow larger and larger over time. We have realized that if our first grant to an organization is going to be the most substantial funding they receive from us, we need to be very clear in communicating that reality.
We learned this lesson when one of our grantees expressed shock that they would be receiving a “tie-off grant” (a final additional year of funding) from Kataly rather than renewed multi-year funding. With this grantee, we had previously shared that because we are a spend-down foundation, we cannot be their long-term funder. What we learned from this interaction was that our communication had not been specific and clear enough.
We learned we need to be explicit that for us, not being a long-term funder means that in some cases, one multi-year grant is what grantees will receive. Our interaction with this grantee partner was an important reminder of the harmful nature of assumptions, and the need to be as clear as possible, even when it is uncomfortable.
For a lot of funders, the desire to not deliver bad news creates ample opportunity for miscommunication and misunderstanding. Instead of being honest when we are unlikely to fund or continue funding an organization, funders can be evasive. Program officers who are uncomfortable with the power dynamics that exist in grantee-funder relationships avoid delivering news that feels uncomfortable, even when they could save grantseeking organizations time by being straightforward and clear. The solution is not to avoid discomfort, but to build trust through candor.
From this experience, we have learned to be clear not only that we are a spend-down foundation, but that we are unlikely to renew multi-year grants, and we want to support grantees to develop funding sources that will sustain them beyond Kataly’s existence. The team uses all of our conversations with grantee partners, and documented correspondence, to talk about what being a spend-down foundation means in practice and our inability to be a long-term funder.
Being a spend-down foundation means that we want to lead with abundance, rather than a scarcity mindset. One of the ways we are trying to lead with abundance is by often being the first funder to support a Black, Indigenous, or person of color practitioner in the mindfulness and healing justice ecosystem. While mainstream funders often invest in white leaders who are starting new projects, our intention is to ensure that Black and Indigenous communities, and all people of color, receive significant funding for innovation and experimentation.
Our approach of distributing substantial, multi-year support from the beginning also subverts the traditional philanthropic approach of awarding small grants at first, and then inviting groups to apply for more as they develop a “track record.” We intend to begin from a place of fullness and possibility in order to offer catalytic support to launch or strengthen organizations.
Transparency is an essential part of our evolving approach to abundance — to discourage assumptions, presumptions, or misunderstandings to the best of our abilities. We are transparent that we can help to seed a project, but that during that multi-year seed grant, we will support an organization to determine how to supplement Kataly’s funding.
Particularly with grantees for whom Kataly is the sole or one of very few funders, we provide general operating support to encourage them to utilize Kataly funding not just to expand programming but to invest in organizational infrastructure that will enable them to diversify funding sources. When Kataly sunsets, we want stronger organizations in place that are able to sustain the work without our continued funding.
When a grantee reaches out with a request for funding that is higher than we anticipated granting to them, we look for reasons to stretch our own capacity. As a spend-down foundation, we have to fight the impulse to make our resources last as long as possible. It is this practice of wealth hoarding that we are fighting against.
Our intention is for Kataly to be one of many experiments of how to lead with abundance in the here and now, rather than holding onto wealth for a future that may not be possible if social movements don’t receive the resources they need today.
Reflecting on this failure reminded us of an episode from the podcast, Finding Our Way, produced by one of MHJ’s grantee partners, Prentis Hemphill, CEO of The Embodiment Institute. During Prentis’ conversation with the organizer and educator, Mariame Kaba, Mariame describes the push in our culture toward a binary thinking of good versus bad, or failure versus success. She shares, “I believe … that failure can be glorious because as long as it’s not further harming anybody in a really negative way, it’s something that you have an opportunity to learn from and then you can move on to making something else that was informed by that previous failure.” We hope to learn from our glorious failures to create more transparent and trust-based relationships with our grantee partners.
The Mindfulness and Healing Justice Team:
Donna Bransford, Senior Program Officer, Mindfulness and Healing Justice Program
Iris Garcia, Program Officer, Mindfulness and Healing Justice Program
Larry Yang, Senior Advisor, Mindfulness and Healing Justice Program
This blog post is a part of a series from the Kataly Foundation on failure and philanthropy. Read the first post here.