Foellinger Invited-Initiative: partnering with nonprofits

By Lynn Sygiel, editor, Charitable Advisors

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As foundations have tailored their giving, honed their criteria and determined focus areas, oftentimes their former giving habits are what the general public is not aware.

This is a first of a series of features on Indiana-based foundations and changes in their nonprofit giving.


Cheryl Taylor knows the effects of thoughtful, reflective grant giving. Since 2001, she’s been president of the Fort Wayne-based Foellinger Foundation, whose mission since its founding in 1958 has been to strengthen organizations in Allen County that serve children and families, particularly those with the “greatest economic need and the least opportunity.”

But, in 2007, the foundation wondered if it could do more than simply write checks to deserving organizations. What if it got really involved and partnered with these organizations to help them succeed?

The Foellinger board decided it was “interested in funding the most adaptive organizations, most effective organizations, the ones that focus on good governance, the ones that focus on good management, the ones that focus on results.”

Thus was born the Foellinger Invited-Initiative, which the foundation believes is creating and nurturing these high-achieving organizations.

“That’s what we think is our niche and where we believe we are meeting donor intent,” said Taylor.

Under the plan, Foellinger takes the lead and invites area nonprofits to learn about its initiative. Extending an invitation doesn’t necessarily mean a nonprofit will be approved for funding, but if it is, a grant portfolio includes multiyear operating dollars, a capacity-building grant and limited capital improvement grants, initially capped at $50,000.

The capacity-building component requires each nonprofit to take a hard look in the mirror. Board members and executive leaders have to complete a detailed self-assessment to identify governing procedures, leadership roles, financial strategies and core missions so that the capacity money can be used most efficiently.

The Foellinger Foundation board approved the 2007 plan, but after the foundation staff spent nearly a year mired in crafting the details, the recession hit. With a dip in revenues experienced by most foundations, Taylor candidly asked her board if it still wanted to move forward.

“And in what was less than a 10-minute conversation, the summary was, ‘If this was the right thing for us to do in July of 2007 when our portfolio was high, it is still the right thing for us to do in November of 2008. It’s either the right thing for us to do or it’s not.’ I was very proud of them at that moment,” said Taylor.

To date the foundation has invested nearly $28.8 million in 23 nonprofits, with no end in sight. With a small foundation staff, and other grant-making responsibilities, not all nonprofits were invited in the initial year.

In the first years, a nonprofit’s size wasn’t a consideration, but Taylor said they learned that it takes a certain number of staff members to complete all that is required by Foellinger. There are mandatory quarterly learning circle sessions, an involved board assessment to determine what to tackle to strengthen an organization and thoughtful reports reflecting on what’s been accomplished using the foundation’s dollars. And there are lots of ongoing conversations.

Taylor and her staff also believed it was important to require Foellinger Foundation board members to annually make two site visits. Typically, Taylor and no more than three foundation board members meet with grantees and the grantees’ board members. Foellinger has a simple, but direct charge to its board: Get to know what the nonprofits have done to strengthen their organizations.

For each site visit, the board is paired differently. “I want different combinations of them because they ask different questions, focus on different things and they hear one another differently,” said Taylor.

“These conversations have been just amazing. I think they give the organization a very transparent insight into the Foellinger Foundation and attaches faces to our board, and in turn the foundation board puts faces to the organization. That’s a culture change,” she said.

The visiting board members must present a report to the rest of the foundation board at quarterly meetings. One of the goals is to help the foundation’s board better understand that the work to strengthen a nonprofit is not the same from organization to organization. Some work on succession plans, others craft strategic plans and still others scrutinize their revenue and how they raise funds, but all have the goal to make their organizations better.

“We are hoping that these organizations achieve financial sustainability and mission impact. That’s what we’re after for now. We’ve provided them all kinds of other assistance through this initiative that isn’t in those grants in order to help them do that,” said Taylor.

Frank Zirille, the executive director of Wellspring, has headed the nonprofit since 2005. The invitation to join the initiative was first extended in 2011, and the social services agency secured a three-year grant the next year. In 2014, Wellspring was reassessed and received another four-year grant, which provides about 25 percent of its general operating until 2018.

Zirille said that the relationship with Foellinger has stoked the organization’s fire to be better. Through this work, he now has an active, informed board that is overall more confident to tackle challenges. And there is a practical application, too. After one of Foellinger’s education sessions, Zirille and his board understood the need to restrict some dollars that could be used to respond to an emergency, and set aside $30,000 for it.

At another learning circle, the group discussed the importance of understanding an organization’s culture. For Wellspring, it led to a document outlining an official “cultural creed.” Zirille, who is retiring in June, said part of the thinking was to prevent future staff or boards from taking the organization in a different direction. They have incorporated it into staff evaluations.

Both Zirille and Andrea Kendall, board chair of Martin Luther King Montessori School, cited Foellinger’s high standards and reporting expectations. Both said in return, they are met with a high level of support.

“It really has involved all of us more deeply and intimately in a dialogue that’s driving us all in the same direction in a way that really wasn’t there before. It’s really forcing us to do the work that sometimes is easily put to the wayside. Along the way there are all these resources and constant check-ins. The consistency of support, and the consistency of accountability to Foellinger has really driven our organization toward success,” said Kendall.

Kendall says the initiative has had a wider effect in the community. Foellinger has brought in high-quality national leaders, giving the sector fresh perspectives.

“It’s created a greater sense of legitimacy for the work that we do as nonprofits and provided us the opportunity to really be more creative, to be more reflective and to create better outputs within our community. That’s definitely something that has changed in our organization and other nonprofits in the area,” said Kendall.

In 2012, Karin Tice, president of Formative Evaluation Research Associates (FERA) based in Ann Arbor, Mich., completed a preliminary evaluation of the Foellinger Invited-Initiative. During her 25 years in the field, Tice has conducted many evaluations, but several things surprised her.

“I think one of the things was the extent of the shift in relationships between funder and grantee. It had been a pretty typical funder relationship: ‘Submit your proposal, then you get your grant, then you start the report, questions, etc.’

“People now feel like it’s a partnership with the Foellinger Foundation and part of the value is that as a true partner, the foundation asked strategic questions. Organizations are able to go back to them and say, ‘We’re really not sure what we’re doing.’ You don’t say that to just any funder,” said Tice.

What also surprised Tice was the level of organizational sharing. Nonprofits have shared succession planning tools, templates for finances and metric tools. The effect has been greater than just for the grantee.

Zirille suggests that the Invited-Initiative organizations need to take responsibility and share these ideas and materials with the broader nonprofit community.

“I think that’s not necessarily Foellinger’s responsibility. The agencies themselves need to figure out ways that we might pass on in a more formal way the things we’re learning and the things we have access to,” he said.

As part a second evaluation, Foellinger funded Tice’s organization to produce a case study for each organization. These were shared with the individual nonprofits and the Foellinger board. Nonprofits can share them more broadly.

“There are really exciting stories. They’re trying new things,” Tice said.

Many of these nonprofits have also changed the way they select board members and acclimate them to the organization. They are looking for more adaptive thinkers and have developed board orientations.

“Part of the value of what has happened is people are asking different questions. And we’re never going to have all the answers, but to ask the questions is so important,” said Tice.

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