Earlier this summer, we held a pair of conference calls that offered grantees an open forum—a kind of philanthropic town hall—to question me and our senior staff members about anything and everything. The calls, which we hope to hold annually, are part of our ongoing effort to be transparent and to create open lines of communication with grantees so we can learn and better meet the needs of the communities we all aim to serve.
For example, one participant asked about our commitment to holding the rise in average global temperature to less than 2˚ Celsius, a longstanding goal of our climate work that seems increasingly difficult to achieve. Environment Program Director Tom Steinbach provided an answer that sheds light not only on our climate strategy, but on our approach to goal-setting generally. Tom thus explained how he and his team have considered carefully whether the 2˚ goal is still the right one by talking to grantees, fellow funders, and other experts. He cited two reasons for concluding that it is: first, because the goal reflects what the best scientific evidence continues to tell us is needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change; and, second, because it provides an ambitious aspiration worthy of our—and our grantees’—efforts. Similarly, a grantee of our Madison Initiative (which focuses on reducing the effects of political polarization in Congress) asked how to connect with others working on the same issues. The answer, from initiative Director Daniel Stid, highlighted the value of grantee convenings, which all our programs arrange as a way to encourage formal and informal networking and collaboration as well as the sharing of knowledge.
A few questions came up more than once, indicating their salience to grantees working across program areas. For those who weren’t able to join the calls, here’s a quick recap of answers to some of these key questions:
Can you share any tips or best practices for grantees to keep in mind in preparing for the transition of Program Officers and Directors?
This question came up on both calls and was also emailed to us in advance of the calls by grantees in a couple of program areas. Hewlett Foundation program officers and directors serve eight-year terms, baking a certain amount of regular transition into the way we work. As my colleague Ruth Levine, director of our Global Development and Population Program, noted in a recent blog post, “[W]e have more planned transitions than most organizations. And we have built some practices over the years to mitigate risk (and hopefully reassure the anxious) on all sides.” Ruth’s post provides more detail on practical steps we’ve taken to ensure smooth transitions—from documentation to orientation processes. More generally, though, it’s important to understand that staff transitions at the Foundation do not trigger radical shifts or the abandonment of a line of grant making. New staff bring new ideas and new ways of thinking to the work: that’s one of the key benefits of having term limits. But our strategies exist independently of the staff members who conceive of and execute them, and we are equally committed to sensible continuity. So my best tip is not to think of such transitions as events for which “preparation” is needed. Instead, communicate: get to know the new officer or director and begin to develop the kind of working relationship and partnership that helps both you and us. Lines of communications between program staff and grantees should always be open—especially around staff changes—but please know that we’ve given a lot of thought to how best to execute these transitions, with minimal, unnecessary disruption to our support for grantees.
How are you thinking about collaboration and synergies across your different program areas?
Several grantees asked a version of this question about the Foundation’s approach to collaboration between and among our programs. As I noted on the call, there are definitely examples of programs partnering on individual grants or strategies. For example, our support for efforts to improve children’s education in developing countries benefits from the input of staff from both our Education and Global Development & Population programs, which share an interest in the topic. We do our best to spot opportunities for partnership, and our senior staff is eager to seize opportunities that crop up. However, because our programs pursue specific strategies in their different areas, which are substantively disparate, and because we try to avoid creating unnecessary bureaucracy, we have not formalized collaborative structures across programs.
What are you priorities for funding in the future?
Our main program areas—education, environment, global development and population, performing arts, and philanthropy—are longstanding areas of concern for the Hewlett Foundation, and our commitment to them is undimmed. Of course, we strive also to be nimble and responsive to changing circumstances and new opportunities, which we do by launching or shifting strategies within these programs; by inaugurating time-limited special initiatives (like our recently announced Cyber Initiative), and through our Special Projects program. Still, our signature programs have roots that stretch back to the beginnings of the Foundation—to what Bill and Flora Hewlett cared most about—and these remain our enduring priorities.
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To all those who participated in the calls: Thank you! We learn whenever we hear from you, and appreciate the opportunity to do so. We hope you found the conversation as useful and informative as we did. For those who weren’t able to join, don’t be shy! You can always ask whatever you need to know and share whatever is on your mind. Like I said above, the lines of communication are open.