The bucolic backdrop of Newaygo County, Michigan, looks like a living, breathing postcard. More than 350 miles of waterways glisten with natural splendor, and trees topped with vibrant, jewel-colored leaves stretch for acres uninterrupted. Its beauty makes it an attraction for outdoorsy tourists and a point of pride for people who call it home.
Inside that picturesque wealth, Fremont Area Community Foundation serves the county’s network of five rural towns and 50,000 residents.
Preserving those natural resources is one of the foundation’s five primary focuses, along with community and economic development, education, nonprofit sustainability, and poverty reduction. The challenge for the community foundation, one the largest per capita in the country, is to avoid overextending any of its limited resources in the process of doing the work in those areas. It’s an often complicated science of weighing priorities against funding and support.
“We deliver funding decisions in person. It takes a lot of time but, as a place-based funder, it gives us the opportunity to be face-to-face with organizations.”
“When you’re working in that space, you can have the ‘S.T.P.’—the same ten people—and you find yourself tapping the same individuals for multiple things,” says program officer Wes Miller. After four years with the foundation, his favorite thing about the work he does is connecting organizations and facilitating shared goals they may not even know they have. “Grassroots organizations have limited capacity, so we have to be cognizant of how often we’re engaging them and making sure we’re doing that in a strategic fashion.”
At Exponent Philanthropy’s National Conference, Wes co-presented a session on the importance of actively listening to grantees, something he’s learned in his four years of developing community specific programming. Findings from a grantee perception report prompted broad, empowering conversations about what the foundation is doing right and what it could be doing better.
“The idea is to be able to solicit feedback in a way that grantees can respond candidly,” he explains. “One of the things we do that’s fairly unique: We deliver funding decisions in person. It takes a lot of time but, as a place-based funder, it gives us the opportunity to be face-to-face with organizations. We can share what went into our decisions and offer feedback from our trustees.”
In their reporting, grantees revealed a desire for nonmonetary support to strengthen their leadership, sharpen their technical savvy, and train their boards. Fremont Area Community Foundation delivered, partnering with a local management support organization to provide capacity building to nonprofits in Newaygo County. Had the foundation not invited grantees to give feedback, those needs may have never been met. Instead, the community wins as a whole.
The greatest takeaway from the work itself is that there is still much work to be done, says Wes. “We recognize that we can continually improve. We’ve partnered with many organizations for a number of years. Now that we’re sitting down with grantees one-on-one versus a phone call or a letter, I think they recognize how much we value our relationships with them.”
“Now that we’re sitting down with grantees one-on-one versus a phone call or a letter, I think they recognize how much we value our relationships with them.”
That responsiveness, he adds, allows the foundation to take the dialogue beyond the grant into bigger-picture conversations and visions for the future. According to Wes, building these relationships has enabled the community foundation to build buy-in for two ongoing initiatives that guide its grantmaking: Community Partner Effectiveness, which focuses on nonprofit sustainability, and Goal 2025, centered on education. It also enabled the foundation to form implementation groups and work cooperatively on better responsiveness to community needs.
Putting relationships first and being open and responsive to feedback are particularly helpful in a small, rural community where most stakeholders either know or know of one another. “Because we don’t have hundreds of thousands or millions of people, I think we can have a really good handle on who’s doing what,” Wes adds, “which can be really helpful especially when we’re doing community leadership where we can get people around the same table and talk about the same topics. That doesn’t happen as much as you might think it would.”