Engaging Conversations: 30-Minute Phone Calls with Grantees Yield “Magic” for McCune Executive Director

In late 2021, Executive Director Carla Romero initiated a series of conversations with grantee partners. Director of Grantmaking and Community Inclusion Ernesto Torres interviewed Carla about how the experience is going, and what’s next.  

Ernesto:  Within philanthropy, there are many practices that fall within the framework of community engagement, as well as a range of purposes that drive these efforts. For the purpose of this particular conversation, I’d like to focus specifically on conversations that you initiated towards the end of 2021 and have since carried forward in 2022.

Let’s start with fundamentals just to have a sense of the landscape or scope.

With whom have you been speaking?

Carla:  I have primarily been speaking with our current grantee partners, but I have also reached out to some of our funding partners.

Ernesto:  What motivated you to have these conversations?

Carla:  Although I have been at the Foundation for several years and have met some of our grantee and funding partners, I wanted to connect in my new role and initiate conversations in order to build relationships. I also wanted to learn directly from our grantee partners, not only about their work, but who they are as individuals. It’s one thing to read about the work in written form, but it’s quite another to hear from folks directly. The commitment, passion and dedication doesn’t always translate through the written word. I also wanted to share information about what is going on at the Foundation – especially in regards to our work toward flattening our structure and working toward applying an equity lens to all aspects of our work. I think it’s important to keep people informed of changes within our organization, as well as what we expect to stay the same.

Ernesto:  Is there a starting question or overall structure, or limiting factors (for example, time, schedule, etc.)? 

Carla:  Yes, I typically start by letting them know the purpose for the call. I also find out what they may want to get out of the call. We share a little about ourselves, then we decide who wants to share first about our organizations. Unfortunately, I have found that 30 minutes is not enough time so we usually go over if we can or leave the call knowing that we can reconnect either by email or another phone call if there is more to say. This is, in my mind, the starting point for future conversations.

Ernesto:  How many calls have you made so far and do you plan to make as this year unfolds? 

Carla:  I have had 65 conversations with grantee partners to date with many more to be scheduled for the year ahead – about 47 more. I see this as something that is ongoing so I can’t predict the number I may complete this year. I am hoping to continue to have at least 2 to 4 conversations each week indefinitely.

Ernesto:  What is the range of organizations covered, including geography and focus of community work?

Carla:  I have spoken to organizations across our 9 Foundation Priority areas and around the state. The groups I have met with are very wide-ranging in terms of size, geography, mission, length of existence, etc. I have spoken to groups working on environmental issues from northern NM to southern NM; educational groups doing work across different educational levels within tribal communities and urban and rural settings; health care providers serving the most vulnerable in the South Valley to those serving farmers and entrepreneurs. It’s been a varied and interesting learning journey. We have such a rich grants program that there are just too many types of grantee partners to mention here. But, our grantee partner list can be accessed via our website if any readers are interested in who they are. 

Ernesto:  What have you learned? What do you think others participating have learned?

Carla:  I have learned more than I can express. I am in awe of the enormous commitment to service and community, as well as wisdom, exhibited by our grantee partners. There are so many collaborative efforts and innovative approaches that I was not aware of or didn’t fully grasp until I had the opportunity to deeply listen. As I have more conversations, I see how so many of our partners have woven together support systems with multiple connection points. I know this is not news, but seeing those connections in action is pure magic.

I am hoping that our grantee partners have a clearer picture of how the foundation is operating, the roles of our leadership team, and how our current strategic plan will shape how we operate through 2025. I also hope they learned that the door is open for future conversations. 

Ernesto:  Were there any common threads or themes that emerged?

Carla:  The main theme that I observed was gratitude. Our grantee partners expressed gratitude for the financial support, but also for their relationships with various staff members and the thought partnerships and connections that emerged as a result. They also expressed appreciation for the innovative approaches that McCune has been able to experiment with and learn from over the years. Several mentioned that they appreciated our streamlined application and reporting processes. I offered my thanks and gratitude to all I spoke with as well. It’s because of their work on the ground that we exist and can do our work. The other main theme was around connection as I discussed a bit above. Building and maintaining connections are critical for this work.

Ernesto:  How have these conversations enlightened or altered your understanding of 1) New Mexico’s nonprofit sector and 2) the practice as well as impact of philanthropy in New Mexico?

Carla:  These conversations have definitely given me the opportunity to have a deeper understanding of the non-profit ecosystem and how we may continue to play a role in these uncertain times. It’s become much clearer how important it is to continue building relationships, including our grantee partners’ voices in what’s important to move the work forward, and keeping the application and reporting processes as streamlined, accessible and easy as possible. We should definitely keep listening to and trusting our grantee partners about what’s relevant and beneficial for New Mexico communities. 

Ernesto:  What is the value of engaging this way? Is there anything you would do differently? Do you plan to continue this practice – if yes, why, if no, why not?

Carla:I have no intention of discontinuing these conversations. I see this as an ongoing practice to keep in touch with our grantee partners and maintain our connection. My hope is that this practice, however, can be expanded to include more of their team members as well as our own. As our leadership team transitions into sharing program work across our team, these conversations are invaluable for us to continue to learn and to build relationships. I also recognize that a longer meeting period would be helpful as I often get lost in the conversation and don’t heed the time.

Ernesto: Final thoughts, takeaways?

Carla: Just more gratitude. Thank you for this conversation, Ernesto. I am also grateful for our team in supporting me in this endeavor and listening as I report back my learning, as well as our contract employee Madison who has been helping me schedule all the meetings.