Innovative Grantmaking

projstreamline1Earlier this week, I had the privilege of attending a conference put on by the Grants Managers Network whose role is to “improv[e] grantmaking by advancing the knowledge, skills, and abilities of grants management professionals and by leading grantmakers to adopt and incorporate effective practices that benefit the philanthropic community.”  Over the course of 2 and a half days, I met individuals from all over the country who work in all types of philanthropic organizations including corporate, family, and community foundations.  There was even a guy who does grantmaking for a hedge fund!  I didn’t know that even existed!  To say the least, I was exposed to lots of information about grantmaking strategies and initiatives that a lot of different funders are undertaking.  The things I want to highlight from the conference are Project Streamline and multiple conversations about efforts to simplify, demystify, and innovate grantmaking.

I was ecstatic to find out that there is a collaboration of grantmaking and grant-seeking organizations who seek to simplify the grantmaking process.  Project Streamline has conducted research around ways grantmakers can make the grantmaking process less burdensome for nonprofits and more beneficial to both grantees and grantmakers.  In a report called Drowning in Paperwork, Distracted From Purpose: Challenges and Opportunities in Grant Application and Reporting,” Project Streamline highlights how grantmakers sometimes have unclear guidelines, request information that isn’t ultimately used, or ask for things from grantees that can be acquired more easily by using technology and the internet (like using Guidestar to verify an organization’s 501(c)3 status).  Grantmakers often seek innovative practices from their grantees, but how often are grantmakers innovative in how they do their grantmaking or how they interact with grantees?  I even learned that a collaboration of funders in Colorado share a common application form such that nonprofits can submit the same application to multiple foundations.  A lot of work and compromise went into that effort, and I hope such efforts or commitment to innovate grantmaking can take hold here in the Bay Area as well.

In addition to Project Streamline’s work, Tony Proscio spoke about how foundations use jargon, confusing language, and hierarchical tones in commications with nonprofits which ultimately creates an even bigger power dynamic between grantmakers and grantseekers who actually want a more collegial relationship. Proscio has written many essays and books on this topic, and challenged grantmakers to communicate through their grant applications, procedures, websites, etc. in a way that shows a tone of ‘humanity’.  Things like speaking in passive voice, using lots of jargon, or using elevated words ‘must do this’ instead of ‘please do this’ create a tone that ultimately can distance the connections between grantmaker and grantee.

To close out the event, a Bay Area local, Bill Somerville from the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation challenged foundations to take more risks in their grantmaking.  He challenged the notion of grantmaking that requires a lot of paperwork, reporting, or lengthy processes that must take place before checks are sent to nonprofits.  Mr. Somerville spoke of grantmaking built on trust with nonprofits doing critical work as opposed to too much formality.

It was great to hear all the different perspectives from grantmakers all over the nation.  The Mitchell Kapor Foundation is constantly looking for ways to be more strategic, innovative, and non-risk-averse in how we work with nonprofits, and I look forward to helping our foundation strive to be a bit more innovative than the conservative norms within philanthropy.

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