When Sammy Politziner and Scott Thomas met at the University of Michigan, they quickly realized they had two things in common: a passion for social change and Michigan football. Little did they know, they would one day dedicate their day jobs to helping nonprofits grow into powerful forces for change.
In 2010, after years spent teaching and brief stints on Wall Street, the two founded the public foundation Arbor Brothers—the name a nod to their school town of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sammy and Scott now make it a priority to partner with nonprofits, listen deeply to their needs, and together build solutions that help them grow.
It works like this: Arbor Brothers raises money from individuals and families—anywhere from $10K to $100K each on an annual basis—and then directs that money to second-stage nonprofits in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Currently about 40 donors contribute to the Arbor Brothers contribution pool, which will fund seven or eight organizations this year.
Arbor Brothers raises money from individuals and families—anywhere from $10K to $100K each on an annual basis—and then directs that money to second-stage nonprofits in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
With the money they raise, Arbor Brothers provides unrestricted grants of $250,000 over 3 years, coupled with extensive capacity building consulting. Sammy and Scott dedicate between 200 to 300 hours per year with each grantee, offering assistance that everyone agrees is necessary for the organization’s growth and success.
Before partnering with a grantee, Arbor Brothers makes it a priority to listen. “We look for nonprofit social entrepreneurs that fit our philosophy for social change and that invest in people for the long run. We also look at how useful we can be in helping them,” says Sammy. “We make a few big bets on organizations, and then we have to prove to ourselves that this organization can get to the next level.”
At the first meeting with a new grantee, Sammy and Scott ask questions to truly understand their challenges. “We ask them, ‘What do you think you need?’ We then do a diagnostic with each grantee and look at their culture to see if it is focused on outcomes,” says Sammy.
This early listening pays off by way of building trust. “Our goal is to make an impact with our grantees. To do that, grantees need to trust that we understand their organizations extremely well, have good judgment, and won’t think negatively of them or put their funding at risk when we see the challenges they’re facing.”
Sammy and Scott then work to prove their value to grantees as quickly as possible, taking on the bulk of the project work upfront. This might include working with the grantee to build out financial models, set a theory of change strategy, set up systems to manage stakeholders, or collect data to measure success.
“We treat our grantees like clients. Once they feel like they can give us the real scoop and that the relationship is set, we’re then able to provide thoughtful advice—advice we hope will stick, thereby maximizing the impact of our time,” says Sammy.
Once a grant is awarded, time is on their side. “We don’t come in, tell them what to do, and then leave,” says Sammy. “Because we care about the growth of the entire organization, we stick with them over time. Our grantees need to like us as much as we like them. We’re in their office every two weeks for three years.”
“Because we care about the growth of the entire organization, we stick with them over time.”
How do they know they’ve done their jobs? “We grade ourselves in terms of where an organization has built an outcomes-focused culture—which we define as management by system rather than by feel or the founder’s personality.” The two have developed a rubric for evaluating a grantees’ outcomes-focused culture, which they also use as a way to determine what they should work on each year.
In addition, Arbor Brothers measures the extent to which they can match grantees with other funders. “If we can find a fit, we will make an introduction to that funder or help the grantee prepare a pitch. We then measure the hit rate—if and how it converted to cash for the grantee.”
Arbor Brothers is trying to solve real problems, says Sammy, but, at the end of the day, they know the people doing the heavy lifting are the grantees themselves.
“We—as grantmakers—don’t make impact directly; we rely our grantee partners for that. This means our job is to help grantees do their job as well as possible. It means inhabiting a grantee-centered mindset, where every moment we ask of them has to be one where we’re making their jobs easier. It means not wasting their time.”