Behind the Scenes of the Knott Foundation: Part I
By Kelly Medinger
Recapping our strategic journey over the past three years
This is the first post in a multi-part series that explores a year in the life of the Knott Foundation behind the scenes
Transparency, in a nutshell, is about openness and accountability. To operate transparently, I believe our foundation must provide the broader community with relevant and timely information about our work, our operations and processes, and what we’re learning. A valuable byproduct of this sharing is that it opens the floor for discussion and participation from our stakeholders, promoting our own accountability to the community.
Having been in the grantseeker role myself, I understand that people might be curious about what’s happening “behind the scenes” in our office (or any private foundation for that matter). While there’s a lot of information on our website, and we’re always happy to talk over the phone, there may still be some big, unanswered questions. For example: When and how do we reflect on our work? What strategic thinking have we been doing over the past few years? How is the Knott family involved in our grantmaking process, and how do their professional and personal experiences help inform their work? And what exactly happens to that letter of inquiry, grant proposal, or post grant report that you write once it’s submitted?
To help answer these questions, I’m launching a blog series to explore a year in the life of the Knott Foundation behind the scenes. Here’s an outline of what you can expect to learn from these blog posts:
- Part I (this post) recaps 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 will examine 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 will feature 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.
To begin, we’ve spent the last three years reflecting on three important components of our work: our donor intent and legacy, our foundation talents and resources, and our community needs and conditions. All of these components play a role in guiding our strategic direction as a Catholic family foundation in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Our Donor Intent and Legacy
One way of positioning donor intent is through three basic, formative questions I believe all foundations must answer about their giving: why, what, and how. Donor intent is the why. It illustrates the values that motivated our founders to give back in the ways that they did.
In the words of business writers Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, “It is more important to know who you are than where you are going, for where you are going will change as the world around you changes” (Building Your Company’s Vision, Harvard Business Review, 1996). For a family foundation like ours, donor intent is that identity, that stable force in an ever-changing world, which Collins and Porras allude to.
In 2014, after researching our donor intent and discussing it at a foundation retreat, we decided to share more about the legacy of our founders through the program pages on our website. There, you can find information about why Mr. and Mrs. Knott cared so deeply about supporting communities in the Archdiocese of Baltimore through giving to education, human services, health care, arts and humanities, and the Catholic Church. The values embodied in these stories are the guiding force behind our role as grantmakers entrusted with honoring the legacy of our founders.
Our Talents and Resources
Yet even with a shared understanding of our donor intent, it’s worth noting that our board looks very different today than it did when Mr. and Mrs. Knott established the Foundation 39 years ago. Twenty-nine Knott family members serve as trustees, representing three generations of the Knott family – the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Marion and Henry Knott.
With this many voices in the boardroom, it has been important for us to understand and reflect on our own talents and resources as a grantmaking foundation, and to be mindful in how we approach our work. We do this by taking a global view of our grantmaking – evaluating application and award statistics by each program area, for instance – as well as discussing our own tolerance for risk, expectations for results, passion for our work, and capabilities as a small-staffed foundation.
Our Community Needs and Conditions
Another important piece of the strategy puzzle for family foundations is external in nature – it’s all about community needs and conditions.
Last year I had the opportunity to formally consult with more than 25 high-level experts representing all sectors of our giving – executive directors, school principals, researchers, program staff, national advocates, and other grantmakers. These practitioners painted a picture of some of the key challenges facing our community and pointed us to important resources to further our learning. The Knott Foundation's board examined these findings at a retreat, spending time discussing the landscape of our ever-changing community, reflecting on our own giving, and determining how best to advance our mission to strengthen the community within the panoply of pressing needs that exist now.
So what do these three components have in common? They all intersect to help us manage our own strategic direction as a foundation.
Our founders saw a whole community of needs, which is reflected today in our broad programmatic focus and open application process. At the same time, Mr. and Mrs. Knott were steadfast in their dedication to education and the Catholic faith; they saw the Church as an anchor institution poised to address a wide spectrum of societal needs. Therefore, within our five program areas we continue to prioritize education and Catholic organizations because they were of central importance to our founders and remain important to both our current board and the Maryland community.
Next year, we’ll also initiate a small-scale, proactive funding portfolio in the out-of-school time space. This portfolio will focus on helping disadvantaged older youth in Baltimore City, especially through informal and formal mentoring relationships between youth and caring adults. I look forward to sharing more about this initiative and what we learn from it over time.
Ultimately our goal is to steward the resources entrusted to us by honoring the intent of our original donors, accommodating the preferences of our current board, and responding to the conditions of the present community. In this way, we remain true to our roots as a family foundation seeking to strengthen the community here in Maryland.