Reflections on a Funder's Role as a Strategic Investor in Community Change

Submitted by sylvia cheuy on March 6, 2017 - 8:10am
A Blog by Tracey Robertson, Strategy Lead - Prosperous People, Ontario Trillium Foundation

As a representative of the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF), I worked with Headwaters Communities in Action (HCIA) -- a diverse citizen-led group that champions community well-being in Dufferin County and the Town of Caledon -- and supported its leaders in the creation of an initial Headwaters Community Well-Being Report for their region.  This required the Foundation to move beyond the role of “traditional funder” in favour of "relational funder", where the agency could position itself as a strategic investor in the community.  As a relational funder, OTF could actively participate in system-wide initiatives and gain an understanding the nuances of community work. 

Working with HCIA provided a valuable opportunity for OTF, as the funder, to witness and deepen its appreciation of how investments may support or hinder a collective, community-based process. Funders are accountable for their investments, which is no different in system-wide community work, but it looks different than a typical grant process (i.e. transaction – proposal – grant money - progress report.) Typical linear granting and reporting practices are challenged by citizen-led work. Although, a community’s vision remains constant, objectives may change or be modified along the way depending on the next iteration of the approach. The relationships that a funder builds with the people involved to establish a partnership that understands, and appreciates both the requirements of the investment and the actions of the community group. 

OTF’s Learnings in its Role as a Relational Funder and Strategic Investor 

Reflecting on the OTF's role as a relational funder and strategic investor in the work of HCIA, the following learnings were noted as critical to success: 

  • Honour local voice and community knowledge 
  • Balance funding expectations…be patient and open to changes 
  • Build relationships with the collaborative leadership team 
  • Be open to providing funds at different stages of development and in different ways without compromising good grant-making principles 
  • Create open communication avenues between: granting staff, granting volunteers and the collaborative so the changes in approaches, directions and strategies are transparent 
  • Recognize that you are strategically investing in a complex process to get to the ultimate outcome and anticipate that this will be non-linear

Essential Skills Needed in the Role of a Relational Funder and Strategic Investor 

The role of the grant program manager in a strategic investment context is fundamentally different than the role that funders typically play in more linear, programmatic funding initiatives.  Some of the essential skills that were required to perform the relational funder role include: 

  • A Relationship-Builder – this involves linking and connecting the HCIA leadership to other connections both within and beyond the boundaries of their region to further support, and validate, their work 
  • Boundary Spanner and Systems Thinker – Facilitating the HCIA leadership to hold a holistic view of their overall impact on the community.  This role becomes particularly valuable as the project team’s focus becomes dominated with implementing their work 
  • Use the Community Lens to Analyze and Measure Success – Support the project leaders’ capacity to reflect on and anchor their work in their knowledge of their community.  Measure their progress and success by evaluating the impact of their work on the benefit to the overall community 
  • Encourage Diverse Community Representation – As the HCIA work unfolded, a key role the funder played was to continually encourage and ensure that various efforts were made to engage a diversity of perspectives across the community 
  • Be Open to Change – Recognizing the dynamic nature of community change, the funder must share the project leadership’s willingness to anticipate and remain open to the project plan evolving and changing over time to ensure its overall objectives are met 
  • Ask Open-Ended Questions – As a strategic investor, the ability to ask open-ended questions is critical to supporting the project leaders in holding a systems view.  Examples include: 
    • How will you achieve the outcome if you change the strategy at this point? 
    • What evidence do you have to demonstrate that this will have impact? 
    • How is the broader community involved? 

Funders need to understand the fluidity of systems-wide work and be open to revisions and changes to the funding requirements.   In supporting the work of HCIA, OTF took the time to understand the community context, the shifts and changes in the directions, and the level of risk required as part of the overall progress to achieve the ultimate goal.  Throughout the process, OTF also ensured that its strategic investment supported the longer-term and overall community vision, rather than the day-to-day operations of the citizens’ collaborative.