Reflections from a grantmaker: Walter Veirs looks back on a quarter-century of shoe-leather philanthropy

Walter Veirs headshot.
Walter Veirs joined the Mott Foundation in January 1998, retiring as a senior program officer in January 2024.

Senior Program Officer Walter Veirs recently retired after more than 25 years with the Mott Foundation’s Civil Society program. Before departing, he shared lessons learned through a quarter-century of grantmaking that supported the development of the philanthropic sector, the growth of civic engagement and the protection of civic space. With abundant thanks to Veirs for his quiet and thoughtful leadership, the Mott Foundation is pleased to share some of those thoughts here.

Mott: What is the most important thing a funder can do?

Two smiling men pose for a photo.
Veirs meets Fred Otieno, a climate justice program officer, at the Legal Resources Foundation Trust in Nairobi, Kenya, in January 2023. Photo: Courtesy of Legal Resources Foundation Trust - Kenya

Walter Veirs: Nothing can replace the importance of long-term investment. Our grantee partners are the agents of change around the issues we care about. If we do our work well, they will continue to be agents of change long past our monetary support. There are many examples of this from the grantees I’ve worked with over the years, particularly around our work on philanthropy development in Central and Eastern Europe. The Mozaik Foundation in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Trag Foundation in Belgrade, Serbia, always stand out. As a result of Mott and other’s long-term investments in the region, today there is a growing culture of giving and an ecosystem of foundations, like Mozaik and Trag, supporting nonprofits and civic engagement across the region. Helping to build and strengthen these types of institutions requires long-term, patient capital and a willingness to stick with them as they experiment and sometimes even fail.

Mott: How have you viewed your role as a program officer?

Veirs: In my mind, being a good program officer starts with practicing what Bill White called “shoe-leather philanthropy.” It’s about being in the field with, listening to, talking with and learning from grantees. While there’s a lot of paperwork involved, grantmaking isn’t a desk job! Once again, my work with Mozaik is a good example of this. I met with Mozaik’s leadership and staff dozens of times over years of travel. I would sit in their offices troubleshooting issues together and travel side by side to visit projects Mozaik was funding and partners with whom Mozaik was working. We participated as peers in conferences and convenings about philanthropy in the Western Balkans and Europe.

A smiling group of people sit at a long table covered in snacks and papers while having an animated discussion.
Veirs speaks at a meeting with the Tuzla Community Foundation in Tuzla, Bosnia-Herzegovina, alongside the community foundation’s members and Mott trustees and staff in October 2012. Photo: Courtesy of the Tuzla Community Foundation

For me, it was important to build strong relationships with the people in the organizations we supported. This is the basis for partnership and trust. If you want a strong institutional relationship — where a grantee trusts you enough as a program officer to share what’s working and not working — you need to put the time into building personal relationships. In the case of Mozaik and Mott, it allowed us to hold ourselves to a high standard and set up our respective institutions to succeed.

At Mott, we built these relationships by being on the ground with Mozaik’s team in the midst of their work. We listened to and learned from them. Building relationships, trusting partners, asking questions, ensuring good work is being done and contributing where one can is how I viewed my role as a program officer.

Mott: What are your first memories with the Mott Foundation?

Veirs: I joined the Mott Foundation in late January 1998. The weekend before my first day on the job, I attended a conference about community foundation development in Central and Eastern Europe. The meeting took place in Poland and gathered a range of funders, international experts on community foundations and nonprofit leaders from the region. At that time, there were maybe just a few nascent community foundations in the region. I remember several things from this conference.

First, I was asked during a coffee break whether the Mott Foundation would be supporting community foundation development in the region. I replied that I didn’t know — I had not actually started my job with Mott! I also admitted that I didn’t know what a community foundation was.

That was my start at Mott and in the field of philanthropy. As a trained lawyer, I had some transferable skills, and, like many others at the time, I was excited and amazed by the changes taking place across the region. But grantmaking and philanthropy — let alone community foundations — were new to me.

Ensuring that civic space is open is one of the most fundamental and critical challenges of our time. It will determine whether action on every other social, political and environmental crisis is possible.”
Walter Veirs headshot. Walter Veirs

I’ve thought about that conference many times over my career at Mott. I realize now that, of course, it was important for me to learn what a community foundation is (and I have), but along the way there have always been new things to learn and understand across the issues and contexts in which Mott works. My job as a program officer, however, was not necessarily to be the expert, but to recognize and support the experts and practitioners. I needed to be good at grantmaking. I loved the work, and, ever since that first convening in Poland, I have never looked back or had any regrets about becoming a grantmaker.

Finally, at that meeting in Poland, it became clear to me just how important relationships are to the work we do in philanthropy. In that weekend, I met activists and funder colleagues who became mentors and partners with whom I and the Civil Society team still work and collaborate today.

A large group of smiling people pose in front of the Kenya Prisons Service building.
Veirs with Mott staff on a visit to Shimo La Tewa Correctional Centre in Mombasa, Kenya, in January 2023 to learn about grantee Kituo Cha Sheria’s prison paralegal program. Photo: Courtesy of Kituo Cha Sheria – Legal Advice Center

Mott: Why have you devoted your career to advancing and protecting civic space?

Veirs: Civic space is the foundation of it all. It’s the environment that enables people and nonprofits to play a role in society’s political, economic and social development. One of my first conversations with Bill White was about the importance of “resource centers” and giving civil society actors the tools and skills they need to succeed, as well as protecting and enhancing the legal and fiscal environment for nonprofit work. Our current “Civic Space” program area didn’t exist then, but its roots certainly lie in the idea that we must always think about the space in which we, as a private foundation, operate and the space in which all civil society actors operate.

Today, I would argue that this is a more challenging and a more urgent task than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The threats to what we think of as civic space are great and complex. It still involves advocating for that core set of laws and policies that enable the work of nonprofits and foundations. But it also includes understanding how rising authoritarianism, counterterrorism and security apparatuses curtail our freedoms of association, assembly and expression. And now digital technology is upending everything.

Everywhere you look there are existential crises. So, now more than ever, we need people stepping up to address these challenges — in their communities and in society at large. But the space for this engagement and action is increasingly being limited, and important voices are being silenced. Protecting the very space that allows civil society to exist in the first place must be a top priority for our sector. Ensuring that civic space is open is one of the most fundamental and critical challenges of our time. It will determine whether action on every other social, political and environmental crisis is possible.