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Learning to Approach Risk Without Being Frozen by Fear

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The following is a guest post from Dan Cohen of Full Court Press Communications. Dan was a speaker at NCG’s December 6, 2011 program Funding Progressive Groups: Managing the Risk , which was co-presented by Alliance for Justice as part of their series on crisis readiness for social justice organizations. The wide-ranging discussion featured funders and communications experts sharing strategies and tools that help grantmakers manage controversy and controversial grants. Below are a few selected thoughts and topics from the discussion.

It is a grantmaker’s nightmare. A grantee is raided by the FBI. Files are taken, employees are accused,funders and communities shaken and critical work is derailed. What is a grantmaker to do?

If you are Dimple Abichandani, Security and Rights Collaborative Program Officer at the Proteus Fund, you take a close look at what you as a grantmaker can do to help grant recipients prepare for such a scenario. And you try to answer the question – What is it that “only we” can do to help?

She suggests the next four steps to provide capacity for grantees and to prepare her field for these or any other contingencies:

Encourage Connectivity

First, Dimple connects all of her grantees to each other – to form the human bonds that help any organization build resiliency. By recognizing that they have a community of collaborators, each grantee feels stronger and more able to manage any situation.


Practice, Practice, Practice

Second, she challenges grantees to work together to practice managing the worst crisis they can imagine as a cohort, and then engage in the same exercise on their own. This helps the grantees understand that they aren’t alone and that there is nothing they can’t handle.


Capacity Building

Third, she provides capacity to get each organization’s fiscal house in order. This is critical not just for everyday operations, but for any politically-driven scrutiny from federal or state agencies that might come due to high profile work.


Know the Laws

Finally, she encourages learning to love the law. By working closely with an attorney at every step of the way, Dimple enabled her foundation and their grantees to prepare for and withstand any public scrutiny by examining and preparing for many of the common legal challenges they might face. She encourages other organizations to do the same.


By serving as a convener, a fear-buster, and a capacity provider, Dimple and her Fund have helped grantees identify and manage against these possible risks. Hers is a model for success in preparing for any and all possible scenarios.

Funding Grassroots work isn’t risky; NOT funding it is risky.

Vanessa Daniel, Executive Director of the Groundswell Fund, argues that we look to the sustained, tenacious engagement of ordinary people to serve as models for philanthropic efforts.

Vanessa argues that for funding to be most effective, communities need to be trusted and empowered. She believes that the best and most impactful grantees are those that have an organized grassroots base. Because grassroots organizations are on the frontline, facing controversial issues, they are most able to understand important issues that funders often struggle to comprehend. Therefore, they have the greatest potential to be effective in addressing the issues currently confronting their communities. Funding these grassroots organizations provides a more informed strategy.

To prepare for risks and for everyday success, Vanessa also feels funders need to shift away from the current trend of funding only one particular strategy. She calls for funders to diversify their funding models and invest in a number of strategies that spring from communities and grassroots organizations. A diverse funding model will spread power and influence across a variety of programs and will engage a more diverse field of individuals. Through adopting this strategy, funders can address an issue from all different angles and reinforce strategies that ensure effectiveness.

In addition to investing in grassroots organizations and diversifying funding models, Vanessa counsels that funders be vocal and break out of the polite culture of silence. Issues such as race, gender, base building, and intersectional work, should be discussed openly within an organization and externally. This helps funders understand the way social issues are used as wedges and can lead to a strategy to address detractors.

Through investing in grassroots organizations, providing support for diverse strategies, and open communication, Groundswell Fund has positively advocated for causes that it believes in. Their open and engaged strategy has made what may have once been considered a risky funding strategy become an entirely necessary component for success.

Often times, the most important audience is internal

While the focus of the session was on what to do when the bright lights of the media, public, and government are upon you or your grantees, I talked about the critical importance of engaging and informing internal stakeholders – those closest to you. By doing so, you accomplish three main goals.

First, you increase the risk tolerance of your Board and your executive team. By preparing for the obvious and non-obvious risks, you help individuals on your team realize that the uncertainty they have about funding certain organizations are often unfounded. It also helps your Board and leadership understand that they already have the communications and operations capacity to address the issues that arise from funding organizations that they might consider risky.


Second, when you identify risks before they happen internally, you can immediately take the necessary steps to control the message externally. One of the most fixable messaging challenges is that you may not be prepared for the obvious risks or crises. With a simple plan, your Board and executive team can feel more prepared to speak out in support of the organizations you fund. If you build internal knowledge and capacity, then you are building confident, informed and engaged messengers.


Third, by informing internal stakeholders on potential risks, you help create a culture of transparency. You will win when you are absolutely unafraid to see your grantees, your funding areas and even your biggest challenges brought to wider attention. There is nothing to fear from public scrutiny if you are prepared and ready to turn the visibility into an opportunity for broader buy-in. A culture of transparency has an added benefit of giving you the opportunity to address an issue before it balloons to become even larger and more problematic.

Many thanks to Northern California Grantmakers for convening this panel and to AFJ for bringing us all together.

Author Dan Cohen is the Principal and Founder of Full Court Press Communications. He started the company in 2001 with a vision of providing public relations, public affairs and crisis counsel to companies, foundations and non-profits who wish to use strategic communications to make social change. More on Dan and his team can be found

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