Chantal Forster and Sam Caplan: Technology Accelerates Change

This episode of Impact Audio is about reimagining technology’s role in philanthropy—with Chantal Forster, executive director of the Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) in conversation with Sam Caplan, Submittable’s VP of Social Impact.

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Chantal Forster and Sam Caplan: Technology Accelerates Change

29 MIN. Join Submittable with special guest Chantal Forster, executive director of the Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG), in a conversation about the power of tech in philanthropy.

 

Description:

Technology can be an incredible asset for those working in grantmaking and philanthropy, but too often this work is considered separate from an organization’s broader mission. Though tech’s role is expanding, there’s still a gap between what’s possible and what’s happening on the ground. In this episode of Impact Audio, you’ll hear from two tech veterans in philanthropy: Chantal Forster and Sam Caplan. 

Listen in to learn about:

  • Technology as a scaling agent, well beyond mere nuts and bolts

  • How technologists fit into the future of philanthropy

  • What bumble bees can teach us about building a participatory ecosystem

  • Tapping into IT’s strategic value

  • Chantal’s story, from coding at 8 years old to leading TAG

From personal stories to professional insights, this episode is full of great takeaways (and prescient predictions) for anyone working in grants, philanthropy, or social impact. We hope it's valuable to you.

Guests:

Picture of your guest, Chantal Forster

Chantal Forster

Chantal E. Forster is the executive director of the Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG). For over 20 years, Chantal has worked at the nexus of people, data, and technology, leading organizations toward greater collaboration, innovation, and impact. Her career spans the private, public, and social sectors where Chantal has developed a unique ability to build cross-sector technology initiatives that serve the common good. Through her work with TAG, Chantal has become a voice for philanthropic investment in digital infrastructure as well as an advocate for centering philanthropy on the "grantee experience" to address inequity and measurably advance outcomes. 

Chantal holds a Masters in Public Policy from the University of Chicago and serves on several nonprofit boards of directors. Chantal resides in Chicago with her husband, Michael, where she is passionate about building resilient, equitable communities, supporting urban arts and culture, and beekeeping.

Picture of your guest, Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan

Sam Caplan is the Vice President of Social Impact at Submittable. Inspired by the amazing work performed by grantmakers of all stripes, at Submittable, Sam strives to help them achieve their missions through better, more effective software. Sam has served as founder of New Spark Strategy, Chief Information Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, and director of technology at the Walmart Foundation. He consults, advises, and writes prolifically on social impact technology, strategy, and innovation. Sam recently published a series of whitepapers with the Technology Association of Grantmakers titled “The Strategic Role of Technology in Philanthropy.”

Transcript:

Episode Notes

Learn more:

Here are the people, organizations, ideas, and gizmos Chantal and Sam refer to, in the order they are mentioned:

Interested in more quality content focused on leveraging technology for positive change? Here are a few Submittable resources:

Full Transcript

Welcome to Impact Audio. I’m Rachel Mindell. 

Today’s episode features a conversation between Sam Caplan, Submittable’s VP of Social Impact and Chantal Forster.

Chantal E. Forster is the executive director of the Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG). For over 20 years, Chantal has worked at the nexus of people, data, and technology, leading organizations toward greater collaboration, innovation, and impact. Her career spans the private, public, and social sectors where Chantal has developed a unique ability to build cross-sector technology initiatives that serve the common good. 

We hope you enjoy this conversation and join us in celebrating outstanding technologists in the field of social impact.

*** 

SAM CAPLAN: Chantal Forster, welcome to Impact Audio. And I have to start by asking, do you feel like you have finally arrived, being a guest star on Impact Audio with me? 

CHANTAL FORSTER: Sam, it's like a celebrity moment for me. I'm on the Sam Caplan Social Impact podcast. It's great to be here. 

SAM CAPLAN: Well, this is amazing for me. So I would love to just start by hearing a little bit more about you.

CHANTAL FORSTER: Well, Sam, you and I share this part of our background. What you might call accidental techies, where we're accidental tech leaders. My undergrad is in English literature, French, and psychology from Purdue University.

My whole career has been in tech from day 1. First, as a tech recruiter, then as a tech writer— senior tech writer for predictive analytics firm, SPSS, now IBM, working on, actually, one of the first data mining software applications based out of London. And then from there, went into public sector tech. 

And then became an advisor for the Kellogg Foundation in New Mexico. And then stayed in the social sector side of things, really in what I hope is a catalytic force for good, a bridge-builder amongst the sectors, amongst the techies and the non-techies to really realize the change we seek in the world. So that's the career story and what I do, 1.5 minutes. 

SAM CAPLAN: That's great. And another thing that we have in common. So I know you learned how to program way back when on a Tandy TRS-80. And I totally remember that little computer. And I had an Atari 400. 

And I remember getting that and I had subscribed to a magazine specific to Atari computers. And every month, there would be a section where it would give you a line-by-line of basic code. And you could enter every line. And at the end, it would compile. And you could run this little program. And so I taught myself how to program in basic many years back. 

CHANTAL FORSTER: Sam, did you really? I didn't know that. How fun. 

SAM CAPLAN: That was pretty much the extent of my own software development career, by the way. 

CHANTAL FORSTER: Yeah, me too. But I had my own personal tutorial, tutor. I didn't subscribe to the magazine. But my father is a computer scientist, who's one of the really early computer scientists. And so he worked at—I grew up on the South side of Chicago. And he worked at the steel mills down on the southern end of the Great Lakes. And that was the '80s, and steel mills were closing left and right. 

So my story was dad getting—working at steel mills, steel mills shutting down, dad getting laid off, moving to the next steel mill. But his work in those steel mills as an industrial engineer, early computer scientist was to build software systems to streamline steel making, to automate, in some cases, steel making. 

I remember him doing like '80s-tastic, early '90s versions of artificial intelligence for these automated guided vehicles, AGV's, that were moving around the steel mills, collecting materials and whatnot, and building in some human-level intelligence into those systems. So it was my dad who taught me how to program when I was eight years old. 

I was probably wearing something neon. I don't know what you were wearing when you were programming. It was like a bright neon pink or something '80s terrific. An eight-year-old girl, my dad was teaching me how to program. But I mean, this is the STEM—this is the STEM story for many women in tech. 

I was really fortunate to have a dad, a grandfather who ran a Research Institute at Purdue University, an uncle who was a nuclear physicist. And they all made me feel completely normal having conversations about their work. They talked to me as though I was an equal.

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah that's an amazing experience. And I'm so happy that you had those very positive influences in your life at that point in time.

CHANTAL FORSTER: A moment of celebration for the female leaders in tech right now. Our stories are all different. I do know many women in tech now who had mentors, female mentors, early frontrunners. And I think that the takeaway for me is whatever we can do to open doors for each other, to lift each other up is our responsibility. 

There's an Eric Liu quote, Eric Liu from the Aspen Institute. And I'll never forget it. I saw him speak in Chicago once. And he said, "We all have some small amount of privilege, whether it's a lot of privilege or a little bit of privilege, but we all have some amount of privilege." 

And there's a question for us with that privilege. Are we going to hoard it or are we going to share it? Whatever small amount that is, are we going to hoard it or are we going to use it to benefit those around us? 

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, I love that. And certainly, TAG is doing so much amazing work these days in terms of equity in the sector, particularly around technology and technologists. 

CHANTAL FORSTER: This is one of the defining questions right now for our society, for philanthropy, for the role of tech. I'd like to quote Michael Strautmanis. He's an executive vise president at the Obama Foundation. And I heard him speak once and he said, "Diversity of perspective is what makes us more innovative."

So if I think about the challenges that philanthropy is faced with right now, the dollars will only go so far. And so how can we be more innovative, more responsive? I truly believe that's by improving—increasing the diversity of perspective on our teams. And sometimes, that's diversity of background and demography. And sometimes it is literally perspective. 

SAM CAPLAN: Yes, absolutely agree. So I'm going to hit rewind just a little bit here. I suspect that we have many people in our audience who are not familiar with TAG. So why don't we start at the beginning. Tell us what TAG is. And specifically, about your role as TAG's executive director. 

CHANTAL FORSTER: Oh, I love it. Let's talk about TAG. So TAG is the Technology Association of Grantmakers. 

Formally, when we started, gosh, 12, 14 years ago, we were almost like a small club for IT leaders and practitioners in philanthropy. A safe space for IT staff or technology staff to talk shop, to build their networks, to fundamentally become more effective at serving their organizations. 

Fast forward, 12, 14 years, and the role of tech in society has changed, and also in philanthropy. And so now, TAG's mission has expanded. So we're no longer just about equipping laptops, or networks, or cybersecurity. We still do all that. We still provide that knowledge for our members. 

But our mission now is fundamentally about the strategic advancing and enabling strategic, and equitable, and innovative use of technology in philanthropy. And not tech for tech's sake. I mean, why are we doing all this? To advance the mission of philanthropy. So TAG now is in a place where we are attempting to be very thoughtful about the responsible use of technology to further the missions of all—of our foundations. And ultimately, of the change that we seek in the world. 

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, I absolutely love that vision and how the organization has evolved. I would love to hear your perspective. Do you feel that philanthropy and large grantmakers in general are ready for a different role for technology at their organizations, one in which technology has the ability to actually influence the mission?

CHANTAL FORSTER: That's a tough question. I'm going to—I'm going to give a straight answer to that one, Sam. Yes and no. So some foundations—I know of a foundation in the past couple of years that was interviewing candidates for an IT leader position. And they had a really great cadre of people who were very strategic minded, mission minded. And ultimately, they pulled back and said, you know what? We don't want a strategy leader. We want somebody who can stay in their swim lane. We want an IT leader that can handle the nuts and bolts. 

What a missed opportunity. It's 2021. Technology is a scaling agent. It's an accelerant. It helps you deliver your mission in the context of the modern world. And so to pull back and want an IT leader who could just handle the nuts and bolts, I think, is shortsighted. 

So now, that's just one example. I know that that's the tension that we're seeing. Some organizations want to stay there. Others, on the other hand, are realizing the real opportunity we have—the real opportunity we have. 

Chicago Community Trust recently hired a VP of IT and innovation. And they very specifically were looking for someone who could think strategically about how the trust could advance its work in Chicago. Complicated ideas about building data collaboratives, integrated systems, across funders, data sharing and system sharing, systems integration. So that IT leader, Lisa Jericho, was intentionally brought in because of her strategic background. 

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, that's great to hear. 

CHANTAL FORSTER: There was a really great article posted recently about moving from and the ego-system—ego-system to an ecosystem in philanthropy. And one of the trends I see in moving to this more ecosystem approach is that internally, foundations are building interdisciplinary teams, cross-functional teams, multidisciplinary experts who can serve multiple roles. Roles will be a bridging function in their organizations. 

Ultimately, it creates more adaptive and resilient teams. That's just the internal functioning of a foundation.

SAM CAPLAN: Do you have anything that you would advise technologists in our sector on to be able to participate in the future of philanthropy? 

CHANTAL FORSTER: Well, Sam, it's like—it's like TAGs. TAG has an Emerging Leaders Initiative. And I'll give the 20-second nutshell version of TAG's Emerging Leaders Initiative, which aims to support and build the next generation of leaders in philanthropy. At the same time, as we help shape and change philanthropy to be ready for the next generation of leaders. It's a both/and endeavor. 

I would say that I'm thinking about the Leon Wilsons of the world. Leon is the chief information innovation officer at the Cleveland Foundation. Leon—I would love to be reincarnated as Leon. He is such an extra—he's blushing right now. He's such an extraordinary human. In that he is a brilliant technologist. He's worked in the private sector. He’s a PhD.

Also deeply immersed in the business of philanthropy. He understands the business challenges and questions of philanthropy. At the same time, as he also has a grantmaking portfolio of technology grants in his community there in Cleveland. And I think that what Leon brings to the table is this extraordinary passion, not just for emerging tech operational efficiency, but also for how philanthropy itself can better deliver on the mission and what the business challenges are. 

But then at the same time, he cares deeply about his community. And he's in the community, recognizing the need for investment, recognizing the tech challenges, and then delivering the support that the nonprofits in his region need. 

SAM CAPLAN: And I think one of my favorite anecdotes about Leon is that in his current role, he actually took classes in finance and accounting so that he could learn the real business of what the finance team at the Cleveland Foundation does. So that he would be in a better position to help them when it comes to technology and data. 

And that has really stuck with me now for a couple of years.

CHANTAL FORSTER: We talked a few minutes ago about my father's influence on my career. And there's something you're sparking a memory for me. Leon is walking a mile in the shoes of some of his people that he serves, his finance team. 

One of the things I learned really early on from my father, so he's a computer scientist at a variety of steel mills from the Chicago area. And when I was young, he actually put a hard hat on me. Put on one of those green vest things that you wear out in the mill. And he took me out in the steel mill. It was a BO, it's called a BOF. I think it's called a blast oxygen furnace. 

And he took me in there and I saw the like liquid iron being poured out into these molds. And then they inject like an oxygen lance in there, and turn it into steel somehow. But what that taught me was you really have to get close enough to the people that you serve to understand their context. That your work as an IT leader, thinker, doer is not detached, shouldn't be detached from the problems of the people that you're trying to serve. 

SAM CAPLAN: The story about your dad walking you through the steel mill to really see how work gets done—it reminds me of this idea that you had a couple of years ago that has really stuck with me, and I've been super intrigued by. And that was, you had stated that foundations should have a chief experience officer. Tell us, what is your vision for a chief experience officer? 

CHANTAL FORSTER: So we can ask ourselves some tough questions. I'd like to ask some tough questions of philanthropy. Like do you know how long it takes a nonprofit to complete your grant form? Do you know how much it costs them? Do you know how many times they tried before they were successful? 

Do we know how they got to you? What was their journey from nonprofit, to applicant, to successful grantee? How long did that journey take? Who did they cultivate in your organization? How many contacts did they try? Do we know who's our grantmaker? 

What is the most time-consuming or painful part of a nonprofit's relationship with you? Do you know—ultimately, what's the brightest, most inspiring, authentically deeply inspiring touchpoints they have with your organization?

SAM CAPLAN: I totally agree. And it's really interesting that we are beginning to see from a grassroots perspective like people and organizations start to emerge that are asking those questions in light of many organizations not having a chief experience officer. And so I think a lot about that and the #FixTheForm movement, which TAG had an opportunity to play a really significant role in with the 100 forms in 100 days initiative. What discoveries were made as you gathered those forms? 

CHANTAL FORSTER:The 100 Forms effort was part of that awareness deepening. 

So we gathered TAG, together with GrantAdvisor, sought, together, a hundred forms—grant application forms from grantmakers throughout the world—in a hundred days. And that was designed to do a couple things. So number one, we were building awareness of the current pain and suffering of nonprofits in the grant application process by encouraging funders to make the full form visible or downloadable during the application process. 

TAG is a nonprofit. Here's the first thing I do when I'm invited to apply for a grant. I download the form so I can work on it offline, maybe send a couple of questions to a team member who can answer them, coalesce the whole thing, and then piecemeal copy and paste into the online form. 

Well, until you walk a mile in your nonprofit shoes, you don't know that that's what they do. And this is the number one pain point for them in the process, according to GrantAdvisor. So we partnered with GrantAdvisor to gather these 100 forms. We ended up gathering 130 forms. This raised awareness with many funders to enable the form download. So success number one, we're really proud that that many foundations were able to do it. 

Number two, as part of this campaign, we spoke with five different GMS providers—grants management system providers—to say, hey, can you enable the ability to download a form for your grantmakers? Because currently, they can't. And if it's a dynamic form, how do they download it? And make it available for nonprofits to download. 

And then, lastly, the other thing we did with the 130 forms, TAG hired a data scientist to conduct a pretty complicated data analysis—similarity analysis—between the forms to understand how similar are our grant applications.

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, well, don't hold back. Tell us what the data scientists discovered. 

CHANTAL FORSTER: So ultimately, what he uncovered is that the grant forms submitted—this is Kwame Porter Robinson, a data scientist and PhD student at University of Michigan—and what he discovered was 39% similarity between the forms shared with us. This is globally, mainly North America, several funders from the UK and the EU. 

39% similarity between the questions asked on these grant forms, which is to say we're wasting 39% of nonprofits' responses, right? 39% of the questions they answer we could feed in from a common app or a common data repository of some sort. That is the question that now lingers as a result of the 100 Forms in 100 Days campaign. 

SAM CAPLAN: Yeah, and I'm so glad that you brought it up. I think that there is a real onus on all of us who are technology vendors in this space to begin to work with funders and nonprofits and really start to think through innovative ways that we can help to reduce that administrative burden of that 39%. 

And to me, for a nonprofit to have to continually enter that data, the same data, over and over again, for every grant that they apply for, it's untenable.

CHANTAL FORSTER: It is untenable. And I have to ask a tough question. Is that ethical? Is that, also, even ethical to know that we're wasting 39% of the questions to ask of nonprofits? 

SAM CAPLAN: Right. I think that there is an ethics question related to all of this. I would also say that technology vendors, grantmakers, we're beginning to learn, as we go through this process—and organizations like #FixTheForm and movements like trust-based philanthropy are doing a fantastic job of bringing to light many of these challenges—and as we begin to learn what those challenges are, I do feel like we have an ethical responsibility back to the sector to help find ways to overcome those challenges. 

So Chantal, tell us a little more about the various trends that you are seeing as you communicate with these hundreds of grantmakers that are members of the TAG organization. 

CHANTAL FORSTER: Sam, I love this. Many of our members right now, they're thinking about their budgets for next year. They're thinking about their five-year strategy. We'd love to say we're in a post-COVID world. We're getting there. But it is a time when most foundations, and certainly their IT leaders, are thinking about what the horizon looks like. 

There are a lot of questions right now about moving from discussions around values into action. So I'm hearing many of our TAG members talk about, OK, trust-based philanthropy is a noble goal. Now, how do we rectify the desire for impact measurement from our board of directors with the desire to become more trust-based with our nonprofit partners? 

And the same thing around equity. Many of our members have expressed that they appreciate the reflection, the awareness-building on diversity, equity, and inclusion in their organizations. And they'd like to start making progress in their organizations. They'd like to see the needle move there into some form of accountability. 

SAM CAPLAN: So this is something I've been thinking about a lot, as well, and my colleagues at Submittable. It's like, how do you really begin to operationalize the learnings that we are seeing from what I refer to as philanthropy 2.0—so all of the movements, all of the discoveries, all of the changes that occurred over the course of the terrible year that was 2020.

CHANTAL FORSTER: That's a separate podcast, right, Sam? That's an additional podcast. 

When we spoke earlier about the chief experience officer role, this is one way of changing the way that philanthropy works so that it can become a system that can respond, and has a framework within which to respond, to several of these movements like trust-based philanthropy, like living equity in action. 

Sam, I think you and I have spoken before about the fact that I'm a beekeeper. And one of the things that I learned being a beekeeper is that bees, they're already moving from an ecosystem to an ecosystem. They already have a model for participatory design, right? They already are a collaborative system. They are an ecosystem that already has listening and adaptation built into the way they work as a society. 

We, as humans, don't quite have that. And so I think philanthropy is in a place where they almost need like an air traffic control, like a CX—a chief experience officer to serve as this integrating function within the organization and invert everything philanthropy does to serve the needs of their client, their customer, their grantee, their nonprofit to think about centering everything philanthropy does on the client experience, which is the non-profit experience. If that's the outcome we seek, our client, our customer, is the nonprofit doing the outcomes. And so that role could get us there. 

I mean, health care has done it. Education has done it. Finance has done it, right? They've all inverted their operational models to serve their customers or their students or their patients. There's no reason why philanthropy couldn't do this, as well. There's another aside. There's another beekeeping analogy. I don't know if you know, the queen is not in charge of the hive. Did you know that? 

SAM CAPLAN: I had no idea, no. 

CHANTAL FORSTER: Not in charge of the hive whatsoever. The team, the workers, are, actually. And they monitor her capability to produce new workers. And if she's not up to snuff, they fire her, and they raise a new queen secretly. And they usurp the queen. 

So there's a lesson, though, about power here. And there's a lesson around, what does a sustainable participatory ecosystem look like? And I would argue that it means developing a framework for listening and adapting and inviting multiple perspectives to the problem-solving that we seek in the world. And I think philanthropy is ready for this moment. 

SAM CAPLAN: I think philanthropy is.

I don't want to go without giving you the opportunity to leave us with some parting wisdom. So what would you like to close with?

CHANTAL FORSTER: You know, Sam, we've spoken many times about the changing role of the IT leader in philanthropy, and what will it take for philanthropy to realize, or recognize, and elevate their IT thinkers? And I think it's a two-part problem, but there's a two-part answer. 

I think that the influence of any function in an organization is very strongly correlated with the perception of that function, right? Is that function, as an IT leader, is that part of the profit center or the cost center if you're in business? Is it a strategic lever in our change? 

If so, then you're very influential. If we don't perceive that, then you're kind of back of house. And I think that IT currently is perceived as back of house, whereas in other sectors, it's perceived as having strategic value. So I think that there is change on the horizon. 

As funders, we saw in TAG's State of Philanthropy Tech survey last year, about 22% of funders started providing tech and tools to their nonprofits as a result of the pandemic. I think about 28% provided technology training, tech assistance and training to their nonprofits. So there is a recognition that tech is becoming increasingly important to actually realizing the change that funders seek. And so, as that change increases, we will see the role of the IT leader also growing in influence. 

But there's something, I think, that is also an important change. We have to believe that change-making itself is the purview of the full team in philanthropy, not just the program staff with advanced degrees in public policy. I have one of those, so I shouldn't make too much fun. 

But we have to believe that everyone's bringing something to the table here. And that's when we'll see everyone bringing their highest selves to the work ahead.

***

Thanks for joining us. Learn more about TAG at tagtech.org and check out the episode notes for more great reading on technology as a vehicle for positive change. Or you can meet up with the TAG community live at an October 2021 TAGreconnect event in San Francisco or New York City. 

Impact Audio is edited and produced by Jordan Marvin and our crew at Submittable. Submittable is a cloud-based social impact platform designed to help your team make better decisions and have a bigger impact. We’d love to partner with you to maximize social good and create lasting change—find out more at Submittable.com. And until next time, take good care. 

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