Lessons Learned 2012-2016…

20 yr VNA logo no tag for web16. Watering the Roots so the Grass May Grow: the Benefits of Funding Agencies “of and for” the Community

Many foundations are reluctant to fund smaller, community-based agencies.   These agencies are often perceived as lacking the infrastructure to manage grants or collect impact data, and some can succumb to stagnation due to a reluctance to stray from original programs or leadership. VNA quickly discovered, though, that supporting “grassroots” agencies, developed by and headquartered in the communities they serve, was often the best investment. Such organizations are generally led by passionate directors deeply committed to their communities, and their size and  targeted service areas allow them to readily adapt to changing needs. We also found that they were often amenable to working as true partners, the result being that VNA’s grants were often especially impactful because the agencies were open to our technical assistance to help them grow, network and strategically plan rather than merely scrape by from year to year due to funding inefficiencies and uncertainties. As we look towards our 21st year of grantmaking, our commitment to grassroots agencies, and the communities they serve, is as strong as ever.

17. The Best Results are Achieved by a Careful Blend of Reactive and Proactive Grantmaking

VNA believes that those at community-based agencies, delivering services each day to their fellow community members, are generally very well positioned to know what programs or purposes are best addressed by grant dollars.  For this reason, the bulk of our funding is awarded via reactive grants, made in response to applications received by VNA.  Sometimes, however, self-initiated, proactive grants (“Special Initiatives” in VNA nomenclature) are the only way to achieve maximum impact. During our first 20 years VNA awarded over $1.67 million in Special Initiative (SI) funding through eight unique grant programs—three of them occurring in the last five years. For each SI, we identified especially pressing but inadequately addressed problems facing the underserved, and researched how best to target proactive grants to achieve priority goals and fill key niches.  In every instance the result, we are pleased to say, was increased effectiveness and impact for VNA, and improved health for the target population.

18. There Will Always be the Medically Underserved and They Will Always Need Help

For most foundation boards and staff, running a grantmaking foundation can be an exercise in distraction:  there are usually a plethora of needs that fall under a foundation’s general funding guidelines and a wide variety of proposals competing for attention.  Even for the most focused funders, it is easy to go off on tangents.  At VNA we have worked hard to maintain a consistent concentration on improving the health of the medically underserved, acknowledging that the definition of the “who” and “how” of underserved may change, but the pressing need does not.  In recent years, for example, which populations are most in need has often changed via political whim as budget cuts and freezes killed effective health programs, and the “underinsured” (those with health insurance but with deductibles or out-of-pockets so high as to make the policies unusable) also became medically underserved.  Throughout these recent changes and the many that preceded them, we found that staying true to our commitment to the underserved via unwavering grant support has helped many agencies that serve this population remain focused on service rather than fiscal crisis, to the benefit of all.

19. Small = Nimble and Communicative, Yes; Bureaucratic and Silent, No

The original reason why VNA chose to operate a very lean staffing model was quite simple: we wanted the maximum possible dollars to go towards grants.  Over the years, however, we’ve discovered some other benefits to a smaller staff.  First, just like the smaller, grassroots agencies we like to fund, our small staff can be nimble and responsive, able to pivot quickly from one project or need to another.  And, with only 2.6 FTE employees, when you call VNA you will never hear “using your touchtone pad, please enter the first three letters of the last name …” or wonder exactly which of the many staff members you should contact. Having a smaller staff also allows us to be health generalists, each knowing at least a little about every pressing health and healthcare access issue, and to foster—and depend on—an active and engaged board. Lastly, the growth of the internet has allowed us to overcome the main challenge to our smaller staff: limited feet on the ground.  Websites and social media have helped smaller-staffed foundations like VNA be transparent and communicative—a mindset to which VNA is deeply committed and for which we have been awarded, eight times, the Wilmer Shields Rich Award for Excellence in Communications (a national award administered by the Council on Foundations, www.cof.org, and the Communications Network, www.comnetwork.org).

20. There is No Reward without Risk, but in this Instance That’s OK

In foundation grantmaking, as in many things in life, there is little reward without risk. Little progress can be made without taking chances on new ideas, novel approaches, and experimental programs. Luckily, though, private foundations like VNA are uniquely positioned to take risk.  We don’t rely on contributions from individuals, government tax revenues or any other sources to which we are beholden.  Therefore, after careful research, we can make a grant to a program that offers a promising new approach to an entrenched problem, even if it is wholly unproven.  And whether that program succeeds or fails, we learn something. Thankfully we’ve had far more successes than failures, but every barrier our grantees have encountered, every wrong horse we’ve bet on, has informed our grantmaking and often resulted in sea changes in our thinking.  In our opinion if a foundation is not experiencing some disappointments along with successes, it’s not doing its job.   So, as we look back on our first twenty years and forward to our next twenty, you can be sure that some informed risk-taking is always in the picture.