Our goal at The Atlas Family Foundation is to serve as collaborators, catalysts and advocates to help achieve a mutual goal of placing individuals on a trajectory that maximizes their potential to good health and success by serving the needs of young children and their families in Southern California. We invest more than money in our grantee-partners. We also work hard to build connections and bring out strengths that help them realize their goals. We see a relationship based on a congruence of values and the development of trust as being fundamental to our work. Among the many valuable lessons we have learned since The Atlas Family Foundation was founded in 1985, the following stand out:
“The biggest impact will come from early investments; and those investments must be comprehensive, synergistic and long term.”
– Anna Henderson, Executive Director, Westside Infant-Family Network
The field of education is broad. Undertaking too many activities diffuses time, energy and money. We find that the greater our focus, the more wisdom, research and funding dollars we are able to bring to the table. This deeply specialized model creates a reputation and becomes a resource for others. Focus allows us to have greater impact and enables us to remain current on important research that, in turn, helps us to become more strategic funders. We balance that laser-focus and remain open to innovations and potential while treating people with kindness and dignity. Focus creates growth, deep knowledge base and impact.
Our long-term focus has created a platform that other funders in the field often access and capitalize on, leveraging social investments in building human capital.
One of the things we do really well is getting to know the people we work with and fund. In order to determine whether a potential grantee is a good match and a solid investment, we begin every relationship with: Who are you as a person and an organization? What are your needs? What are the critical issues? How can we be helpful?
And we listen closely to the answers. This deep listening is important to us. Due diligence works better when we are good listeners.
The due diligence we conduct encompasses a review of an organization’s financials, its board of directors, impact, challenges and culture, among other things. The review fits well for us, since we tend to enter long-term funding relationships with our grantee-partners. Over the years, we have had many other foundations call and inquire about our due diligence of an organization – effectively asking us to “vet” that organization. In turn, we often connect with other foundations who value relationships and due diligence, and we ask for their input.
You cannot measure success immediately. The grantmaking process is what it is and is always a journey; it takes longer than you think.
It’s tempting to believe that the journey is about results and goals – and those are important, yes – but ultimately the process is about developing as much trust as possible on both sides. It is the relationships that really matter. The longer you fund a community partner, the greater the level of trust you will have with one another. A foundation of trust fosters depth that helps us reach our goals.
When you work to build trust, fund for the long haul. Your relationships with the grantees will become stronger, and the return on your investments will increase dramatically.
The wisdom is, if you hold stock in an outstanding business, you hold it long term – through the ups and downs. That wisdom also holds true for a good program: you fund it long term, through the ups and downs. There are many paths to success and all of them involve becoming comfortable with taking risks. You cannot achieve success unless you are willing to embrace change and risk the discomfort of failure.
We conduct our due diligence each time we renew our funding, but we also come to the table willing to take risks. Some of our greatest successes have come from what others may have perceived as failure, combined with our willingness to tolerate – and learn from – those challenges.
We believe that once you do your due diligence, there is no true failure when investing in the community. Metric-based failure can often be used as a great learning tool and as a means to effect innovative change. If situations go awry, you can make course corrections, learn what is there to be learned and move on.
Relationships matter profoundly when it comes to change. We work hard to develop leaders and give people equity in our collaborations. It is our well-established practice to begin every meeting by asking people about themselves, beyond their academic degrees and job responsibilities. We want to learn about where they grew up and what motivates them to do what they do. We have been in many meetings where, following our introductions, people who have worked together for decades say to one another, “I never knew that about you!” This radical “seeing” of one another is an important component of how we work with other partners.
Successful grantmaking requires a team. At the foundation, we take an inclusive approach to our internal work, making funding decisions as a team, and including trustees and staff in the ongoing dialogue about strategy and grantmaking. We believe in partnering with experts, remaining inclusive and keeping in mind that diverging perspectives and opinions can often create outcomes that are larger than the sum of the individual parts.
For this reason, we like to work with non-profit leaders that are inclusive of people at all levels of their organization and take the time to connect with everybody including their front-line staff, giving a voice to people at all organizational levels.
In one initial meeting with a highly rated program, we met the agency’s executive director, the chairperson of its board of directors and 10 staff members. After brief introductions, the executive director began with a PowerPoint presentation. We politely asked them to turn off the slides and to tell us about themselves as people. The director then proceeded to spend the remaining time essentially presenting his PowerPoint, only now without the slides. We realized that the relationship was not a match for us.
We want to connect with a cross-section of people who work in an organization and invest in leadership that empowers everyone around the table; we invest in well-functioning teams.
We believe in nurturing the nurturers: the devoted line staff, who can become so burdened by the enormous lift they undertake every single day. We bring our grantee-partners together every year to give them an opportunity for inspiration, respite and restoration. This convening of grantees is a practice we have engaged in for more than a decade. We bring our grantee-partners together and create a space where they can have their own voice. Our surveys strongly and consistently reflect how valuable this convening has been for our grantee-partners. We provide knowledgeable speakers and energizing activities, including meditative practices. We also give our grantee-partners the opportunity to meet and network with one another. Organizations learn from one another and form new partnerships. In our experience, this kind of rejuvenation pays off in unexpected ways.
A major foundation recently commissioned an assessment that interviewed its 500 grantees to determine what it is doing right and what it should be doing better. Among the handful of recommendations highlighted by the assessment was this request by the foundation’s grantees: “Could you bring us together more so we can connect with each other and learn from each other?”
We are mindful of how we can simplify application and reporting requirements for grantees that have been funded for longer periods of time. For instance, we have eliminated the six-month reporting for our long-term grantee-partners, requesting only 12-month reports.
There are always defined goals related to a project. These goals are directed by our grantees not by us. We are also keenly interested in understanding what success might mean from other perspectives. We consider on an ongoing basis how our grantee-partners may be looking at the project goals, and whether success may look different to them than it does to us. We continue to work toward an inclusive definition of success.
To create change, we need our grantee-partners as much as they need us. We couldn’t do what our grantees do. They have the people, the knowledge and the trust of their constituents; we have the funds and other resources. It is a partnership. But grantee/funder relations are not always perceived as such in the field.
Money can have a profound impact on the dynamic between funder and grantee, and that, in turn, influences how organizations participate and partner with one another. We find great value in tackling head-on those sometimes-difficult conversations around power and decision-making. We see ourselves as partners and collaborators, and work hard to create safe environments where we can disagree, challenge perspectives and take varying positions. We believe and know that this dynamic strengthens our giving and collaborations.
This lesson was born out of the frustration of talking to other funders and noticing that the importance of the early years was falling on deaf ears. We realized early on that people saw us as being primarily “interested only in the babies” and it became critical that we have to highlight not the “babies,” but the common ground by showing how other funders’ individual goals can be achieved better, faster, cheaper, by also investing in the healthy development of children.
We were once participating in a meeting with funders focused on different kinds of programs related to homelessness. We could have talked about early intervention – and would have probably met blank stares – but we chose to talk about how programs for young children can reduce homelessness down the road because “It all starts here.” That is finding the common ground.
We learned an important lesson about how to integrate what we do with others’ interests. Research shows that a critical part of the solution to almost all the social issues we are attempting to address lies in prenatal and early child development, and that investing in the early years can save our society astronomical sums. We do not try to change people’s thinking. We meet them where they are and help them to extend their thinking by finding the sweet spot where there is a merger of values and interests.
We see ourselves as playing an important role as a catalyst to help grantee-partners to achieve their goals. We are not just investing in organizations, but also bringing out strengths that can help our partners actualize their mission more effectively and broadly.
We also fund joint projects amongst agencies and support the development of emergent collaboratives such as Westside Infant Family Network and South Los Angeles Child Welfare Initiative.
In 2004 we saw and seized upon an opportunity to convene a diverse group of public and private funders in the area of prenatal and early child development. We observed that there were many funders making big decisions and doing impactful work, but most of the work was being done in silos. We took the initiative to invite the organizations to a first meeting. All we did in that initial meeting was go around the room, introduce ourselves and discuss the specifics of our interest in funding or advancing early childhood. We discussed challenges and opportunities to both learn and gain leverage from each other. At the end of the meeting, Richard Atlas asked: “Does anyone want to meet again?” Everyone in the room raised their hands. And that was the beginning of what will later became the LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment/Invest in Kids LA (see below).
Since 2004, what had started out as a catalyst for people to connect and partner with one another became a public-private partnership for infants and toddlers. The first three years were quite organic: we organized the meetings and brought in the speakers. Eventually, though, we realized that people had come to see the collaboration as “the Atlas thing.” We knew that the success of the entity depended on our pulling back and enabling others to take ownership and leadership, and so we slowly began to scale back.
The collaboration moved in a direction that was empowering for everyone. Over the past 10 years, it evolved into an organization called The LA Partnership for Early Childhood Investment, a one-of-a-kind entity comprised of more than 30 public and private funders that regularly meet and work together to support prenatal and early child development programs. It was a 10-year evolution from “the Atlas thing” to a one-of-a-kind entity that today is self-sustaining and impactful beyond anything we might have envisioned when we had that first conversation.