ESS A Powerful Educational Tool For New Grantmakers Across The U.S.

Mike Gallagher

“Incredible.” “Impactful.” “Packed with information.” “An absolutely first-class teaching tool.”

Across the nation from regional associations and their member foundations both large and small comes praise for a grantmaking curriculum that is resonating with—and educating—newcomers to the philanthropic field.

Essential Skills and Strategies for New Grantmakers” (ESS) is a turnkey resource offered in a seven-session educational program that focuses on highly engaging learning activities aimed at providing a national orientation to grantmaking.

The ESS curriculum was developed by a volunteer leadership team that includes representatives from the Council on Foundations (COF), the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers (Forum), the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) and Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania (GWP).

The project’s development work was funded by grants to COF from The Lumina Foundation for Education and the Ford Foundation.

“The Council and the Forum believe that the philanthropic field will benefit from our partnership to create a standardized curriculum that would provide a common introduction to grantmaking,” said Danah Craft, vice president of programs and constituency services at COF.

“In 2005-’06, the leadership team formed a project partnership and convened colleagues from foundations and philanthropic infrastructure organizations to design the field-wide curriculum,” noted Mary O’Neill, the Forum’s director of programs. “Its real-world case examples and frameworks used in each workshop are drawn from actual field experience.”

COF in 2006 hired VeraWorks Inc., to design the curriculum model using an instructional strategy based on the principles of adult learning. Later that year, four regional associations piloted the curriculum and faculty and participant feedback and suggestions were incorporated into a series of workshop revisions to fine-tune the program.

A 10-member advisory committee comprised of regional association and foundation leaders from a cross-section of the country helped steer the effort to success.

How ESS Works

Judith Donaldson, former GWP executive director and member of the ESS Workgroup Curriculum Development Team, said ESS “is designed for grantmaking staff, board members and trustees who have up to two years experience at a community, corporate, family, independent, public, operating foundation or those organizations that have a giving program.”

And ESS faculty teaching the curriculum “are experienced foundation practitioners, attorneys, foundation advisors and COF senior advisors.”

Fellow ESS development team member Vicki J. Rosenberg, CMF’s vice president of Communications, Education and External Relations, said there are seven individual sessions in the curriculum and—with the exception of Session 1 “Being Grounded in Philanthropy” – they can be taken in any order though optimally they should be taught in sequence. It is possible to deliver a single session or a group of them at one time.

The other sessions include:

• “Navigating Legal and Ethical Issues”
• “Making Sound Funding Decisions”
• “Communicating Funding Recommendations and Decisions”
• “Managing the Grant Portfolio”
• “Maximizing the Impact of Grants”
• “Managing Personal and Professional Challenges”

“Each session varies in length from 60 minutes to three and half hours,” noted Rosenberg. “The workshops are interactive and discussion-oriented.”

ESS Development Team Consultant Bea Boccalandro, president of VeraWorks Inc., said resources for the curriculum include participant and faculty guides, overhead slides with instructions, an extensive resource of supportive articles and materials and a comprehensive bibliography.

“Both the curriculum and its resources are available free to all regional associations as well as affinity groups and other national associations and infrastructure organizations,” said Boccalandro. “Materials are available online. Passwords are needed to access all materials.”

Success Stories Abound

Today, all the hard work by the ESS team has paid off as both regional association leaders and foundation officials who have participated in the educational effort say the program is a tremendous asset to the philanthropic field and not only newcomers, but seasoned nonprofit professionals, are benefitting from it.

Sue Bennett, Learning Manager for Philanthropy Northwest, said ESS has proven itself so successful and engaging, she offers several trainings per year in her region.

What newcomers learn from ESS, said Bennett, “are tactical skills. But even more valuable is they get a sense of the real art of philanthropy and are able to articulate the value of the work and what they are trying to achieve.  They also get to meet new people and share new ideas.

“The curriculum is designed for new grantmakers, but we have attendees with more than 25 years experience who say they are getting a new perspective of the field from it.”

Marissa Theisen, president/CEO of Arizona Grantmakers Forum, said her organization did a joint program with the Conference of Southwest Foundations and allowed trainers to use the curriculum materials as a template, permitting them to revise the lessons to meet their needs.

“Our attendees’ evaluation results showed high marks,” noted Theisen. “The material was interesting, informative and interactive. It shows the real side of philanthropy.”

Joining the long list of ESS advocates is Jumana Z. Vasi, associate program officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

“I thought it was a great experience,” said Vasi. “The curriculum was terrific. I liked that that the program allowed for maximum discussion on people’s practical experiences as part of the learning component.”

The curriculum is a hit with faculty presenters as well.

Kristen Engnell Bibo, program director for the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, said ESS “can easily be integrated into an existing grantmaker training program.

“Also, the piece that really enhances our work is the peer interaction exercise component,” she said. “Folks really liked that aspect of the curriculum. As an instructor, the ESS website is full of really rich content, data and great guidelines.”

Tonya Allen, Skillman Foundation’s vice president, programs, a two-time instructor for ESS in Michigan, said the curriculum “is one of the best educational programs ever developed for those new to the philanthropic field.

“From a teaching standpoint, the lessons are practical, easy to understand, provide a wealth of information and a multi-level educational experience touching on different aspects of philanthropy that people need to know about. It’s truly impactful,” she said.

“People walking out of these sessions say they have a deeper understanding of the field and how and why it all works,” added Allen.


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