Five Mistakes to Avoid When Pursuing Strategic Grantmaking
Being more strategic doesn't have to be complex.
The term “strategic philanthropy” is everywhere these days. That’s not surprising, since most funders are looking for ways to increase their impact. Being more strategic can be a complex undertaking — and like every complex undertaking, shifting toward strategic grantmaking comes with multiple pitfalls and opportunities to make mistakes. That’s okay. Mistakes can provide valuable information for ongoing learning, which is a key part of strategic grantmaking. Acknowledging and acting on them only serves to make your efforts stronger.
That said, there are some common pitfalls that any foundation can avoid with a little forethought:
1. Not asking "why". There is a tendency when discussing new ideas for philanthropy to rush headlong into strategies and tactics without carefully thinking through the why behind the strategy. Does investing in a reading program for third graders sound like a good strategic move? Why? Identify what you want to accomplish first, then the fastest way to get there.
2. Putting all your eggs in one basket. Throwing caution to the wind and engaging full bore in a new strategy may be tempting for some, but when it comes to long-term effectiveness and impact, a slower, more intentional shift will bring greater clarity for your team and greater support from your community. Wade in and test the waters rather than diving in headfirst.
3. Not communicating. The beginning of an exploration into strategic grantmaking is the time to step up communication and transparency. It’s imperative to explain to your community what you’re doing, the process you’ll use, what you hope to learn and accomplish, and how long you think it will take. Once you’ve designed your new strategy, share messages about that as well. Explain why you settled on the direction you have, how you came to that decision (your process), when and for how long you anticipate enacting this strategy, and who might be affected and why.
4. Being too prescriptive. There is a difference between identifying an issue and identifying a solution. Dictating solutions is not truly strategic, unless a funder is willing to learn from grantee experiences and adapt its strategy accordingly. The better bet is to work with potential grantees to identify potential solutions to the issue you wish to address, and allow them to help you design their respective approaches. Otherwise, you’re simply asking them to apply the “XYZ Foundation’s method” to a problem that they may or may not feel is best solved by that method. If there is a particular program that you feel would be helpful, poll potential grantees to see who may agree, who may not, and why.
5. Believing you can’t make a difference. If you don’t believe it, no one else will either. When it comes to strategic grantmaking, there’s no such thing as too small, too conservative, or too restricted in scope to make a difference. No matter what your operating focus or geographic area, there are myriad ways to be strategic. If you can embrace them, others will too.
For more insight on strategic grantmaking, and tips on responsive grantmaking, download the full report, Responsive vs. Strategic Grantmaking: Exploring the Options.
© 2018 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.