Kate Wolford: What’s next? Seeking your input on 2015-2017 at The McKnight Foundation

McKnight president Kate Wolford

McKnight president Kate Wolford

At a retreat in October 2011, McKnight’s board of directors crafted a Strategic Framework to guide the Foundation’s future directions and decisionmaking for 2012–2014. This was in response to an expressed need for shared understanding of the broad trends and issues that provide context for our work. We sought to articulate an approach that could provide internal coherence about our mission, values, and niche as an organization, while allowing for diverse program goals, strategies, and structures. The unique legacy and deeply embedded values of McKnight as a family foundation provide internal coherence and the flexibility to adapt to changing societal needs and opportunities.

Three years later, board and staff agree that the Strategic Framework has proven its value — informing program strategies, our engagement with grantees and other stakeholders, our knowledge sharing, and staff and organizational development. Practices and tools of adaptive action are widely used by board and staff to make meaning of data, information, and changes in the external context, and then to make adjustments and course corrections. We have all honed new competencies as we lived into the framework, perhaps most especially around dealing with ambiguity and paradox — ambiguity as we work in the midst of wicked complexity and paradox as we embrace seemingly contradictory concepts. For example, the framework embodies the paradox of coherence and flexibility. It articulates strong coherence about our approach while allowing for very diverse program strategies and structures.

The description of our “niche” in the framework (page 3) plays out in virtually everything we do. We are fortunate to have a very robust toolkit to deploy toward our goals. We make grants of varying types, sizes, and durations, and we provide various forms of non-grant assistance. We work in funder collaboratives, through intermediaries, and directly with individual nonprofits, governmental units, and increasingly with the private sector.

In our framework for 2012-2014, we identified a number of key foundation-wide strategies to advance our credible influence and impact. These included:

McKnight-hosted early literacy panel discussion, 2013

McKnight-hosted early literacy panel discussion,
J. J. Hill Library, St. Paul, 2013

  1. Bring our vantage point as a regional or place-based funder into national networks. In embracing our deep commitment to place, we have ramped up our role as a strategic interface between local and national/global networks. Our program staff are intentional in reaching out to appropriate national funders and building mutually supportive relationships. This has brought valuable attention, connections, and resources to local nonprofits and cross-sector collaborations. I also think it has helped peer funders and collaboratives “land” more effectively, with deeper knowledge of the local landscape.
  2. Strengthen McKnight’s influence with a knowledge management system. After looking at the experience of other funders, we opted for a staff-wide inquiry process. With lots of thoughtful discussion and insights, we realized how much information we already have or have access to, and identified opportunities to better leverage it internally and externally. Over the past two years, we have significantly increased our use of social media and other platforms to share more real-time data, learnings, reports, and thought pieces. This has increased perceptions of the Foundation’s transparency, given greater visibility to grantees’ impact, and provided more opportunities to share our point of view related to key goals.
  3. Leveraging converging interests to create multiple bottom-line benefits. Working at the interface of multiple sectors and complex issues is what we do. Doing this work well requires staff to have deep understanding of systems change, the strategic ability to identify and sequence levers for change, and the credibility, humility, and respect for others to build shared ownership with diverse stakeholders. It is resource-intensive, requiring significant staff time for thinking and doing, for grantmaking, convening, and setting agendas to address emerging challenges and opportunities.
  4. Deepen impact and influence through program supportive approaches such as mission-related investing. In October 2013, after a board-staff learning and design process, McKnight launched its impact investing program. Implementation of a highly integrated, dynamically evolving program will be a major foundation-wide focus in the coming years.

Share your perspective on McKnight’s next steps!

At a board retreat in early October, the board will revisit and refresh our Strategic Framework. The general consensus of board and staff is that we don’t need to start from scratch. As one colleague noted, “For better or worse, all the megatrends still apply.” Even so, we know there are new trends and external changes that are relevant for the Foundation’s work across a broad set of program goals.

With this blog post, I invite you to share your perspectives on the following as we set our course for the next three years:

  • What are the key external issues and trends that the Foundation should consider across its diverse program interests?
  • What should be on our “Now what?” list for 2015-2017 to strengthen McKnight’s credible influence and impact? We know we cannot do everything well or credibly, so what do you see us as being particularly well positioned to advance?

Please share your thoughts and suggestions by commenting below, or email me anytime at kwolford@mcknight.org.

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