#146 Measuring The Effectiveness of Relationships Between Grantees and Donors with Lisa Weinstein of the Wilburforce Foundation

donors effective philanthropy effectiveness grants philanthropy relationships Sep 17, 2023

We are joined today by Lisa Weinstein who is a program officer at Wilburforce Foundation.  The Foundation builds strong and deep relationships with grantees, co-funders, scientists, and decision-makers to ensure long-term effectiveness. Lisa explains how the Wilburforce Foundation has created an innovative strategy to improve grantee capacity through the establishment of a special nonprofit called TREC. TREC offers training and support free of charge to Wilburforce grantees to help the nonprofits navigate tricky capacity building issues.

Episode Highlights:

  • Monitoring grant-making effectiveness
  • Structuring a firewall between grantees and donors to support resilience and capacity building


Lisa Weinstein Bio:

Lisa Weinstein is the Program Officer for our Science and Capacity Programs. Prior to joining Wilburforce, Lisa was the Senior Program Officer at the Turner Foundation, where she managed grantmaking to conserve and protect land, water, and wildlife throughout the U.S. Lisa also previously worked for Georgia’s Department of Natural Resources as an Assistant Chief of Nongame Conservation within the Wildlife Resources Division. Lisa has a Bachelor of Science degree in Environmental Biology and Ecology from Michigan State University and a Master of Science degree in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When not working, Lisa enjoys hiking, bicycling, snowshoeing, and spending time outside with her husband and child.



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Full Transcript: 

Lisa yay. I finally got you on my podcast. You are so awesome, and I really think that my listeners will appreciate our conversation because you have years of experience as a philanthropist, both at the Turner Foundation and the Wilburforce  Foundation, where you're now. You've also worked a variety of other jobs. Those aren't directly related to philanthropy, so you've got this wealth of experience with things like state agencies and other areas.

So that you can share with us how can you really are an effective philanthropist, and you've lived it. You've lived it on both sides of the aisle, so to speak, in the philanthropic setting. Before we get into your words of wisdom for my audience, Lisa, can you first talk to me a little bit more about what inspired you to get into the world of philanthropy what you're doing, and what you're focused on?

Sure. And thank you, Sybil, for having me on your podcast. I'm so excited to be here and to chat with you. As some of the listeners may know. We've known each other for a long time, so it's always wonderful to learn from you as well, so hopefully we can bounce ideas on effectiveness back and forth. Forth.

But yeah, what brought me to philanthropy? Well, as you mentioned, I have been on both sides of the aisle. I have been a recipient of generous grants from, you know, both federal and state-level grants and from private donors, which really struck me. The value of those who supported me was not only the monetary value but also the relationships that were built over time with the funders that I had a chance to work with, and there was an opportunity that came up. I had been in Atlanta for about 10 years at that point. And I really respected the whole philanthropic community there.

So, when an opportunity came up to work with the Turner Foundation, I was especially excited because of my background in wildlife combined with their focus area and the deep commitment that they showed over many years to the wildlife conservation community. I just wanted to be a part of it, so that's what really brought me into philanthropy. And maybe you'll ask me what makes me stay, but what makes me stay are the relationships with both the funders, fellow funders, and my grantees.

That's great, Lisa, and let my audience know what you did before you went into philanthropy too, because that's been really interesting. Yeah. 

Yeah. Well, as a Jack of all trades, I have a background in wildlife ecology and a master's degree, and my focus was ecotoxicology. So, the effects of contaminants on amphibian populations. I moved to Vermont for personal reasons. My husband and I moved there and When I got into the space of looking for a position after my master's degree, the space for traditional wildlife ecology was very small, and the opportunities were very few and far between.

So, I got into environmental education and really fell in love. I was in love with working with high school students at that point, and you know, I felt like it was a stop-gap. But then I realized that the education part of the work that I was doing was really paying dividends in both You know, the audience and myself. I learned a lot from that time.  

So, I worked in environmental education both in Vermont and then when I moved to Atlanta, I worked at a museum and ran an environmental education program there and then finally got into state government, which was my original plan all along with my background, my degree, and managed an education program there but also managed a conference center, which was quite an experience. Let's just put it that way. I don't have a background in business. So, I learned a lot.

That's great. And then you went over to Turner Foundation, and that was when I met you, I think at that time, and we partnered a lot with my clients and with your donors at Turner Foundation, really in a lot of co-funding of key wildlife initiatives. And that was really fun to do with you.

And then I'm so pleased that now you're over at Wilburforce  Foundation in charge of it sounds like a couple of things. One is sort of on capacity building, which is a nice connection to what you've done in the past, Capacity building and support of environmental organizations and nonprofits will be provided by our grantees and local forces, as well as by you, who work in the science arena, supporting scientists who are investigating key questions. 

Can you tell me more about your work at Wilburforce  and how you monitor effectively? And look at how the grants you're making are really supporting these communities.

Sure. I'll start with the science. I think that one of the things your listeners might need to know is what Wilburforce 's mission is. And because I am, I manage one of our cross-cutting programs within Wilburforce . So, Wilburforce 's mission is, you know, small efforts to protect the wild places and wildlife throughout western North America. 

You're saying you’re saying that as a joke!

As anyone in the field knows, that's a massive undertaking that takes many, many decades. To do this effectively, what the past executive directors and staff realized is that it's not only important to work deeply in each region, but also to provide support in the science that underpins our decision-making as funders and our decision-making, as it relates to conservation.

So pretty soon after the foundation was founded, and they started developing what we call our cross-cutting programs. So, science is one, capacity building is another, and lawn policy is our third.

So, my effort in the science space is to really provide capacity within the science community to conduct decision-relevant research to help guide our grantees in using the results of decision-relevant research and really build a space for science integrity within decision-making.

You know, it can look anything from looking at how animals move throughout the landscape in terms of corridors or other ways of moving throughout the landscape to looking like what? Are the social Levers necessary to engage the public in decision-making?

And so, we have a pretty robust conservation science program, but we also grow our social sciences programs, looking at the economic case for conservation and, like I said, the social value case for conservation. Integrating traditional ecological knowledge into decision-making processes.

So, it's a really fun field to be in, especially now.

Right. And I wanted to hover over this for a minute because a lot of times I get questions. How can we monitor our grant-making effectively? And there are a lot of ways to do this. 

One thing that Wilburforce  is doing, which I think is really important, is that you fund specific issue areas, campaigns, and projects you care about, and then you're hired specifically to work with all of those different programs to see if the science is proving the theories that the grantees are implementing.

So essentially, you're funding the scientists to monitor the effectiveness of the work that your nonprofits are doing. That is how I see it. And I think that's a really interesting approach. It's not the only approach to monitoring the effectiveness of grant-making, but it's something that I think my listeners will find interesting. 

I really wanted to interview you because I think it's a really important conversation to have you have. Can you also talk to me a little bit about the work that you do and the capacity building side, because I think that's so interesting? The whole trek program and just all that work that you're doing there.

Sure, happy to. 

Well, our theory of change is a bit of a hacky way of saying it, but the way we do our work, our theory of change is to really build strong relationships with our grantees, with the idea that if we build long-term, lasting relationships and are embedded in funding in space, not just for a campaign, but for the long haul, we are more effective in our work.

And what naturally happens when you build and maintain strong relationships with both grantees. With whom we work, but also our co-funders, the scientists that inform the work that we do, and decision-makers, we really have a deeper understanding. We hope that intractable problems are not so intractable.

So, a lot of times we hear from our grantees that beyond the paycheck is beyond the check and beyond the donor, they have specific needs for increasing their ability to communicate with the public, creating leadership pipelines within their organizations, and really developing and enhancing their relationships with their boards. The whole idea of organizational effectiveness and leadership capacity and we realized really early on that funding a campaign was not really funding growth and the development of the organization becomes at odds with itself.

And so that helps make sure and support the groups to be effective at their work by really digging in and supporting the capacity building. Talk a little bit more about this structure with Track because you have a little bit of a firewall, right? You support Track. But yeah, talk about that. So that the nonprofits can feel comfortable.

Oh, absolutely. Sure, I see. The capacity-building space is kind of a chess board, right? So, we have one side, and it's not adversarial: it's a game. It's a fun relationship that we have. On one side of the chessboard is the funder.

So, the funder sees the landscape from their point of view and makes the moves that they need. They need to make you aware of their mission, vision, and strategies, and then the grantees are on. The other side hopes that we're playing the same game, but they have their own mission, vision, and capacity. Points, and it's our idea that when we're playing this game together, we're learning about each other, but we don't see all of the chess board and an organization like Track, which was founded back in 1996. With our support, they develop a relationship where they see the Entirety of the Chessboard. They understand our strategy, our mission, and our vision. The work that the organizations are doing, and they understand the limitations of those organizations, and those elements of the limitations that they don't, the organization might not necessarily want to share with the funder because there's a risky relationship. We hold a lot of power with our funding, and to show the warts and all to a funder is even more difficult. A relationship is scary.

So, what we've done with Track is we've developed our firewall philosophy, where our grantees when they work with Track, share whatever they feel like they need to share around: organization needs limitations, leadership limitations. Financial limitations, and they know that they have a trusted relationship with Track, and that Track will help guide them or support them in the growth that needs to happen without the risk of us necessarily knowing what they don't. Want us to know? 

And of course, not at all that firewall is reached if there's a legal issue or anything that smacks of inappropriateness, but you know, normal stress and strain of an executive director with challenging board or challenging issues with staff or fundraising challenges. We need to be able to support those folks without fear that the funder is going to pull back because of pursuit risk.

Right. And I mean, it is interesting because you have this mechanism for nonprofits to be able to do this at the same time. I've seen you and other program officers at Wilburforce . I've worked with you. You have such a positive relationship with the nonprofits that I actually do see the nonprofits opening up directly to staff when there are issues so that the staff can help and work through things, It's just really, really nice that you have this organization that can dig into stuff and really see all the elements of the chess board and still have that firewall I love that model, so I just wanted to make sure we brought that up, and the reason that fits into this question of how do you ensure that the grants you're giving are effective, and how do you monitor that over time?

Sometimes the effectiveness of the monitoring is handed off to an organization like Trek, and you as a funder may not actually know all of the details, but at least you're creating a system to ensure that the organizations are still whole and vibrant, and if there are problems, then they can try to work through those things, and you know, maybe the problems can't be solved, but at least you did all you could as a funder to help them. Help make it work before the failure happens.

Which is important too, right? 

Sort of think it through. Also sometimes, like I've worked with organizations that have ended up needing to fold and there are ways to serve as a fund or to support an organization in ending its lifespan really well, right? 

You support the executive a lot of times, and when this happens, the executive director recognizes it. They need to fold. Or maybe they want to put the mission of their organization into … they want to merge it with another organization for a variety of reasons. And so anyway,

So, there are all of those pieces that are so important, and you know it's great; there are good trusting relationships you all have with yourself, the staff, and the nonprofits, but to have this trek option is just awesome. I know a lot of nonprofits I found with my clients are similar to your organizations, and they always tell me how great Trek is.

So that's why I wanted to bring that up. 

We just went through your science program and the capacity program that you work on. 

Can you talk to me more about what excites you most? I mean, you moved all the way to Seattle to look for the Wilburforce  Foundation. You know what makes you so excited about this foundation and its mission, and what gets you excited in the morning to, start working every day?

Yeah. Oh, man. The people at Wilburforce  thought that was a slam dunk. For me, you know, as we said, we had talked about I had been in the philanthropic world at the Turner Foundation, and I love those folks too. Amazing group of people. I've been there for seven years. 

One of the things I didn't mention in my history I was allowed really generous flexibility to facilitate a leadership program that is centered in Georgia called the Institute for Georgia Environmental Leadership, and it is cross-sectoral for six weeks. 

Over the course of the year, one, you know, six-week block really digs into the conservation issues in Georgia but also looks at leadership competency and how we can grow in our leadership as individuals. And I had ETs from you from nonprofits in there with me, I had attorneys from a variety of different sizes of law firms, state government folks, federal government folks, and, you know, other people in philanthropy. And I fell in love with the idea of leadership development, sharing across sectors, and really growing in leadership and collaboration in a pretty contentious and sometimes contentious space.

So, I was really kind of thinking through what I wanted to do next, and you know, you and I even talked about, Do I hang a shingle and do capacity building as a one-person shop? Do I launch into some other space where I could work within the conservation community? But really grew the understanding and competency of both me and other folks within the space. And the job at Wilburforce  popped up that was both science and capacity. There are two areas that I'm passionate about, and the folks at Wilburforce  have been here for, you know, many years, decades even.

So, I had known them and loved them both as people, but also the philosophy of the Labor Force to be in deep relationships with our grantees and to be in deep relationships with fellow founders. And really, a deep collaboration. So, I don't get the chance.

Yeah, and that's great. And that is something that's really important, as Wilburforce  has been around and will be around for many, many years in a different section of my podcast series. I get to delve really deeply into the question: should you spend down more quickly, or should you not spend down as a client? Please excuse me as a funder. 

Like a lot of clients, my clients and others think about this. Do we want to put all our money out the door in two to five years, or do we want to stay in it for the long haul? There are costs and benefits, pluses and minuses, to both of those approaches on the well-before side. You all decided to stick with it, and I see so many benefits here.

So, I did want to just raise that because you really are in it for the long haul. You're thinking about it over the long term, and I think it's really important for funders to hear about those positive pieces. Thank you, Lisa, so much. Yeah. 

Yeah, I think sure, sure. I mean, I would say it is a tough decision that donors have to make. And I would say that the benefits of being in it for the long haul are some of these. As you well know.

Some of these issues that we're trying to work on Have working fits and starts. It's stochastic, and so are we. Have a very short timeline. We might get a short-term win. But at what long-term cost and that's one of the things that I always try to think about is whether we can want sustained change, right? We don't want just something that is five years old horizon and then can be undone because we didn't build the structures inherent to the same change.

The depth of relationship that's necessary for that long-term, durable success Yeah, totally, totally. We see it over and over before you go. Lisa, what are your top-line words of wisdom for us? Like the high-level things you want to make sure we all


Hear about it from you.

Don't be afraid to see this as a human endeavor. We often look at the end goal. One of the most satisfying things for me is really getting to know the people I found and my fellow funders, and that opens up so many doors to create. Give to creative grant-making, but you have to bring your whole self, and you have to be human and not behind it. Just behind the checkbook. And then the second thing is, I would say, don't be afraid of really helping an organization grow and change; it might not be. The point of the direct aspect of your mission is that it actually will create the sustained change that you want to see when you support healthy organizations. So those are the two takeaways.

I love that. Lisa, thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

Thanks for having me. This was fun.