The ‘Yes, and…’ approach to grant-making

Reflecting on ten years at Pears Foundation.

8th March 2017

A few years ago I found myself quaking with terror at the first session of an eight-week ‘improvisation for beginners’ course. I had been persuaded to do it as part of a wider programme of coaching and, despite my initial reservations, it turned out to be great fun and I learned a huge amount from it.

One of the most important principles of improvisation is the “Yes, and…” approach;  a way of thinking that develops the scene by building on possibilities. It works like this: whatever your fellow actors present to you, instead of ignoring it, disagreeing or going off in your own preconceived direction, your job is to say, “Yes, and…” and add something to it that they can respond to as you play off each other and build the scene together.

As I reflect on ten years at Pears Foundation, it seems to me that one of the most exciting aspects of working for a family foundation is the ability to use this “Yes, and…” approach in philanthropy.

As trusts and foundations, we are part of the third sector yet we are privileged to have resources at our disposal and, in our case, staff capacity and a philanthropist who values openness and curiosity. Instead of having to close down an idea or discussion due to financial or resource constraints we can say “Yes, and…” and open up possibilities, encouraging our grantees to do this too, building on their ideas and thinking creatively about what could be.

A “Yes, and…” approach also builds trust between the partners, helping us to move past the power dynamic inherent in funding relationships. Grantees trust that their ideas, suggestions and honest reflections and feedback will be validated and met with thoughtful questions and as funders we trust them to tell us what they want to say, and not what they think we want to hear.

Just like a good improvisation scene, for us a good grant is all about the dynamic relationship between the partners, whether we are thinking with The Scout Association about how to meet the huge demand for new groups, or with UCL about how to transform Holocaust education, or Ambitious about Autism about how to develop its provision as the original pupils in its Treehouse school reached adulthood. We may have an idea of where we want the conversation to go, but by being open to discussion and building on each other’s knowledge and suggestions we can help to create the space for creative ideas and innovative thinking to develop.

“Yes, and…” thinking has enabled us to think about possibilities rather than constraints and I look forward to seeing where it, and our partners, will take us over the next ten years.