President's Corner

Grantmaking Without Silos

May 7, 2012

Luz Vega-Marquis
By Luz Vega-Marquis
President and CEO

We are committed to forging a broad-based network of organizations that create a movement.

The marking of our 10th anniversary has compelled me to reflect on the evolution of Marguerite Casey Foundation. That reflection continually leads me back to the principles and practices upon which we built our work. In my last report to you, I reflected on our founding commitment to put families at the center of our work — an overarching framework that has proved to be radical and profound in its simplicity.

Shortly after defining the Foundation’s purpose, we defined its grantmaking approach. Among our many decisions that did not follow the path of mainstream Foundations, none stood out more than the decision to do our grantmaking without silos. Why did we take a different path? We set out to spark a movement of and for families, and we recognized that this could not happen by dividing families in any way. We had to find mechanisms to bring people together across traditional barriers of geography, ethnicity, culture — and issues. We determined that a non-siloed approach to grantmaking offered the best opportunity to weave together our grantees across issues.

In two fundamental ways, the common issue-based model would have undercut our commitment to forging a broad-based network of organizations that could work together to build a movement.

First, it would have been impossible to identify a limited number of issues that we could point to as being drivers of a family movement. That is not how broad-based movements happen, and inevitably it would have led to conversations about which family need (for example, housing, employment, immigration) was most pressing and thereby most important to fund, pulling us away from movement building.

Second, silos would have put up internal barriers to our own understanding of movement building. Only after years of cross-issue work were we positioned to identify our five movement building indicators: policy impact, family engagement, network development, organizational capacity building, and leadership development. Had we approached our grantmaking with an issue-based lens, we would have built a body of knowledge about those issues rather than a base of engaged families.

In Foundations for the Common Good (March 2010, Caring to Change) — the result of an extensive research project to identify emerging Foundation practices that have the potential to create social change (most of which, notably, are not widespread) — Mark Rosenman writes:

“Foundation funding practices have helped create “silos” in the nonprofit sector where broad social, economic, political and environmental problems are broken down into fragmented issues with groups specializing in narrow approaches to their resolution … Consequently, too many nonprofit organizations have’ narrowly tailored their programs and missions and are becoming more specialized in focus as they more narrowly define their issues and constituencies. No matter how effective the narrower programs might be, these efforts will ultimately hold less consequence for substantive and sustainable change than would more comprehensive initiatives.”

In effect, that specialization in grantmaking has operated as a barrier to broad-based movements. The field systematically strengthens the silos, and people working in nonprofits and philanthropy are narrowly trained to work in them, perpetuating the limited·approach. To truly build a cross-disciplinary practice of philanthropy in that environment takes people who are able to listen to families as experts and convey their perspective across traditional silos and barriers.

Tim Brown, the author of Change by Design and the chief executive officer of IDEO, a design firm that is turning its focus to social problems, describes such people as “T-shaped.” Their principal skill-set (as evaluators or community organizers, for example) comprises the vertical leg of the T, but they are able to branch out (represented by the horizontal bar at the top of the l) into other skill areas (such as communication or network building) and do them well. They are willing and excited to explore different perspectives, and they recognize patterns that yield ideas.

We are seeking T-shaped grantees, organizations that have an expertise in one area (child care, for example) but that can explore other areas and their connections (such as criminal justice reform). Within our own organization, we need T-shaped people to execute our strategies: program officers who can connect diverse perspectives to a broader narrative about the intersection of family poverty and policy.

Challenges of Grantmaking Without Silos

Our grantmaking approach is not common, and finding T-shaped people is not easy in any field, which explains why grantmaking without silos has simultaneously produced exciting outcomes for Marguerite Casey Foundation and posed internal challenges. Some reflections on the challenges:

Evolving while doing: In the early years, in particular, program staff had to make grant recommendations while our definition of strategies was in development (for example, the Foundation’s definitions of education, activism and advocacy. Moreover, the Foundation’s tactics continually evolve in response to what we leam as well as unexpected conditions that affect families and organizations. Without defined issue areas or targets, the program officers must focus on building networks connect organizations across issue areas and demonstrate the collective impact of collaboration by connecting organizations across issue areas.

  • Measuring impact: Because we provide general support rather than program funding, traditional program evaluation does not apply; however, we have used a traditional evaluation method when appropriate. As a result, we have designed new metrics for movement building and new ways of communicating our impact.
  • Grantees are the experts: Marguerite Casey Foundation grantees are chosen because they are cornerstone organizations with deep ties to their communities as well as connections to other groups working on issues of importance to working families. Oftentimes, our program officers find themselves in conversation with grantees about a specific issue area of which they have limited knowledge. Marguerite Casey Foundation program officers are not expected to be experts on single issues but to be well versed in our approach to movement building.
  • Expectations for program officers: On a day-to-day basis, our grantmaking approach requires more collaboration by our program officers than that of traditional grantmakers: We expect our program officers to deliver a high level of analysis, to engage actively with our grantee partners, and to work closely across Foundation teams, all under the mandate of connecting the grantmaking to the Foundation’s overall movement building strategy.
  • Some have joined the program staff believing they could do what they wanted and build their own portfolio. We give every individual a chance to succeed, but if program officers cannot execute on our well-defined approach (that is, they prove not to beT-shaped), they will not stay on staff for long. This has led to turnover, of course, but it is critical to get people on board who are committed to the Foundation’s collaborative approach.

Opportunities of Grantmaking Without Silos

As one program officer said, “Grantmaking without silos can be liberating for many of the same reasons that it is challenging.” Below are some reflections on how the challenges are managed – and how Marguerite Casey Foundation has turned the challenges into opportunities for innovation:

  • Getting to a true yes: When we get to a “true yes,” that is, a genuine understanding with a grantee about what it means to be in partnership without silos (and in alignment with Equal Voice), the dialogue is spectacular. Getting there requires ongoing conversations that push beyond an issue area. Once that happens, long-term’ partnerships are firmly established. Having an established set of long-term partnerships keeps the grantmaking grounded and opens us to new possibilities.
  • Meeting grantees where they are: From the beginning, we have said we would meet grantees where they are on a shared path toward building a movement. The significant diversity among our grantees and our reasons for funding them must coalesce within a singular vision that points everyone in the same direction. This is in keeping with the philosophy of Jim Casey, who said, “The destiny of all of us is, to a large extent, in the keeping of each of us.” Marguerite Casey Foundation’s approach to grantmaking matches the thinking, trends and needs in the movement and in the work on the ground. Most funders stretch and pull at organizations, which, at best, can be an annoyance and, at worst, can actually conflict with what communities need.
  • Approach matters: How grantees approach the work determines whether an organization is a good fit for new or continued funding. It is a given that a grantee would need to be engaged in work that meaningfully addresses family poverty, and we seek partners whose approach to their work aligns with our movement building indicators: building local leadership, pursuing policy advocacy versus a direct service model, and connecting with other organizations to increase their impact.
  • Collaborative grantmaking: Our model requires that program officers work collaboratively to make grants. They do not have individual budgets; rather, the team divides one funding pool. Allocating dollars across all regions gives program officers a level of accountability they would not have with discrete allocations. It also ensures that they rely on each other to make the best decisions to advance the Foundation’s priorities: Their success is interdependent, much as the success of the grantees and families is interdependent. In essence, program officers strive to build relationships that connect grantees to the work of the Foundation as well as to each other — rather than to the program officer. This practice is to ensure that relationships and networks built can endure the test of time and internal changes.
  • Balancing portfolios: The program team is expected to balance the needs of all regions, recognizing that collective impact is the indicator of success for the Foundation. Program officers must be mindful about broader needs and have the integrity not to lobby for their “own” groups or regions. That approach leads them away from talking about “my” region and “my” grantees and to analyzing the contributions of their region’s portfolio to the advancement of the Foundation’s overall movement building strategy.

An Uncommon Path to Extraordinary Outcomes

Some of our most exciting achievements are intricately tied to the opportunities and challenges created by grantmaking without silos. In my opinion, grantmaking without silos and putting families first led to Equal Voice. It opened us to the possibility of knitting together our grantees in a network focused on achieving an equal voice for families — an aim that supersedes any individual issue.

When we started our grantmaking, we had a pool of grantees that were not talking to each other or working with each other. They did not want to sit next to a” person who was not interested in their own work. It was our intention to get people together and to nurture networks across issues, and by communicating our approach and bringing people together, we have made tremendous progress.

Ten years later, we have a body of work that validates our grantmaking approach. Yet, 10 years later, grantmaking without silos remains an anomaly among large Foundations, perhaps because it is a harder path to take. It requires a comfort with risk, a commitment to internal collaboration, an engagement in rigorous critique, and a willingness to change. This uncommon path will continue to lead us to extraordinary outcomes.


  1. What do you consider the most significant benefit of grantmaking without silos?
  2. What do you consider the most significant challenge of grantmaking without silos, and are we addressing that challenge effectively?
  3. What have you learned by witnessing our grantmaking approach?

Grantmaking Without Silos