Behind the Scenes of the Knott Foundation: Part III
By Kelly Medinger
A Q&A with trustees about the family’s participation in our grantmaking process
This is the third post in a multi-part series that explores a year in the life of the Knott Foundation behind the scenes
Did you know that 93% of Knott Foundation trustees conducted one or more site visits in the community last year?
This hands-on approach that our trustees take in our grantmaking process is one of the unique components of the Knott Foundation’s operations. In essence, our board of 28 family members from 3 generations functions not only as the governance body of the Foundation’s assets and charitable activities, but also as “a team of volunteer program officers” – evaluating grant requests, conducting site visits, and reporting back to their fellow board members each year.
As part of our “behind the scenes” blog series, we’re taking a look at the inner workings of the Knott Foundation, from strategic planning to grantmaking. This is the third post in the three-part series:
- Part I (read it here) recapped our strategic journey over the past three years to share our donor intent and legacy, explore our own talents and resources, and create a common education base around community needs and conditions.
- Part II (read it here) examined what happens behind the scenes with grant applications – from the time a letter of inquiry comes in the door to when a final grant report is submitted.
- Part III (this post) features a Q&A with trustees about the family’s participation in our grantmaking process, including reflections on their giving philosophies and experiences as site visitors.
Recently, I sat down with several longtime trustees of the Knott Foundation to hear their perspectives on how we approach our grantmaking and what they look for in grant requests. Below are excerpts from that conversation.
How would you describe the involvement of our trustees in the grantmaking operations of the Foundation?
Martin: We are very involved, not only from a screening perspective when an organization comes to us with a letter of inquiry, but beyond that. We go out on site visits to see organizations in action and meet the people involved, and then we write about it and share it with our fellow trustees. This work ultimately puts us in touch with the people we’re serving.
Patrick: My grandfather was very hardworking, so it’s not surprising that we have a hardworking board as well. And while I don’t want to speak for everyone on the board, I think many people would say that doing site visits is their favorite thing that we do as trustees. Each cycle we get to select the grant application we want to evaluate. Kathleen sends us the materials, and we study them and prepare our site visit questions. After the visit we do our own write-up about the organization, the nuts and bolts of the request, and an assessment of their leadership and financial position.
John: On a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate the involvement of our trustees as an 8. Obviously, some people are more involved than others, but we still rely on our professional staff to do some of the legwork each grant cycle.
In your experience, what makes for a good site visit?
John: Being prepared. Having the right people in the room and thinking of questions and issues ahead of time. But also being prepared to offer suggestions or be critical in front of them. We’re here to learn from you, but we’re also here to share our own perspective. I find that I can usually offer them a variety of suggestions or connect them to organizations that might be good partners. As a foundation operating in the Baltimore community for 40 years, we bring a huge amount of knowledge to the table.
Visiting the nonprofit organizations we support creates meaningful opportunities for learning about the needs of our community. What are some trends, challenges, or opportunities that you see in the program areas we support?
Lindsay: I see a trend in Catholic religious orders that are not prepared financially to take care of their aging populations.
John: There is also a lot of consolidation of Catholic schools, parishes, and provinces going on.
Patrick: I see a trend in programs that work with older youth in our city, where so many of the movers and shakers are new organizations that are founder-led and founder-driven. It makes me wonder what the sector will look like in 20 or 30 years, and how we can support these organizations now to ensure that their innovation and work continues for decades to come.
What are some of the key ingredients you look for when evaluating a grant proposal?
Martin: Statistics that demonstrate successful outcomes, along with trying to get a read on the leadership and make-up of the board – are they givers, raisers, what are their talents? Knowing they’ve executed the mission successfully and can back that up with data is important.
John: The very first thing I look at is the professional leader’s experience and tenure. Board giving is also hugely important to me, because if an organization’s own board isn’t contributing financially, then why should we? Next I look at how many people are served, is the ask reasonable, and how well-prepared they are for the site visit.
Any other thoughts or reflections you’d like to share with our grant applicants?
John: Tone down the flowery language and stick to convincing facts.
Patrick: I’d point out that we don’t always have the funds available to award every worthwhile grant that comes to our attention. There are lots of great organizations and programs strengthening the community, and we’re lucky to be able to support a few of them in that important work.
Lindsay: When we as trustees meet with grant applicants is when we really find out about your impact in the community. A hallmark of the Foundation is the time we spend as trustees learning about your work, seeing your program in action, and then sharing your story with the rest of the board. I think we are all very thankful that we have that opportunity and grateful for our many grantees who’ve been so generous with their time and expertise over the past 40 years.