We depend on well-led and well-managed grantees

Light bulb with gears Sky Motion/Shutterstock

The foundation’s Madison Initiative is addressing three big challenges facing U.S. democracy. We seek to strengthen Congress, improve campaigns and elections, and combat digital disinformation. While these are distinct objectives, they all depend on our having well-led and well-managed grantee organizations to take full advantage of our funding. Leadership is typically not a problem for our grantees, but management often can be. We are striving to help them close this gap.

I should begin by fleshing out our definitions of leadership and management. Following Harvard Business School’s John Kotter, we believe leadership and management are very different things, and that effective organizations need to have both. Leadership provides a compelling vision and the ability to change, innovate, and grow in fruitful ways. Management, in contrast, provides stability for the ongoing work of problem-solving and building up essential systems, processes, and disciplines – e.g., careful budgeting and performance measurement.

Several factors have led to leadership generally being stronger among our grantees. For starters, we primarily fund advocates, think tankers, litigators, and media outlets. In these areas, the ability to convey a vision, and to change and adapt in response to new developments are the coins of the realm.

Because there are real returns to these attributes in our field, visionary leaders – often the founders of their organization – can make a lot happen and carry on despite having under-developed management muscles on their team. However, the longer this strongly-led and under-managed imbalance persists, the more likely it is that problems arising from not having necessary systems and processes in place, e.g., blown budgets, missed deadlines, or high staff turnover, will crimp the organization’s potential.

Grantees are further hampered in developing their management chops because some funders who are penny-wise and pound-foolish balk at paying for it. They insist they won’t pay for “overhead,” or cap it at arbitrarily low and flat rates, because they want their funding to go straight to grantees’ programs. They fail to recognize that the management capacity of grantees is what will enable them to sustain and improve their impact over time.

We use several grant practices in the Madison Initiative to counteract the field’s chronic under-investment in grantees’ management capacity. First and foremost, like other teams at the foundation, we provide the bulk of our funding in the form of multi-year, unrestricted general support grants that leave our grantees free to allocate costs to and invest in management capacity as they see fit.

When we do make project grants, for several years now we have encouraged our grantees to account for and request their full or true costs, a practice our foundation now encourages across all of our programs. Our peers at the Ford, MacArthur, Open Society, and Packard foundations are striving to do the same.

In addition, through Hewlett’s Organizational Effectiveness program, we make supplemental grants to meet prosaic but mission critical management needs that are otherwise hard for grantees to undertake, e.g., for strategic plans, website overhauls, executive searches, performance measurement systems, program evaluations, succession plans, and diversity, equity, and inclusion training.

These grant practices are helpful but still at times insufficient to help grantees gird their management capacity. Often, they need a senior manager with the experience, responsibility, and authority to complement their visionary leadership. These chief operating officer (COO) roles, or senior positions with similar job descriptions, can serve as much needed counter-weights in grantee organizations. We’ve encouraged and supported several grantees to hire COOs, then underwritten coaching to help the leader and the newly-hired COO craft a productive working relationship and align their roles.

A first-time COO can encounter and generate a lot of turbulence. A few such attempts by grantees to establish the role have quickly flamed out. It is a fraught task to begin balancing the leadership vision and change that have enabled an organization to prosper since its founding with the management continuity and discipline required for success in the longer haul, especially as it scales up. Striking this balance is challenging even for organizations that have astutely had a COO in place from the outset.

With this in mind, we have recently begun underwriting a community of practice among COOs from 11 of our grantees. The premise is that, given their unique responsibilities and challenges, these senior managers have a lot to learn from and offer to each other. Once a month, the cohort of COOs is convened virtually by experienced advisors at Community Wealth Partners to engage in confidential conversations on topics its members have identified as pressing in their work, from navigating the CEO/COO relationship to managing staff and and formalizing systems and processes. The goal is to share not only lessons learned and experience with specific tools, but also the perspectives and support of colleagues who are tackling the same difficult tasks in different organizations.

With this and other efforts we have underway, we will continue to evaluate and gauge whether they are making a difference. The acid test is always whether grantee leaders and managers find them helpful. Our work to help grantees become well-led and well-managed will continue to evolve. Given what’s at stake, neither we nor our grantees can afford to be complacent about it.

Search Our Grantmaking


By Keyword