5 Best Practices of Extraordinary Grantmakers


forbes-picHere are five ways to elevate your outcomes and impact to extraordinary levels.

I love to read about best practices — within and outside the field of philanthropy — and to gather examples from my work with foundations. I derive a great deal of satisfaction from thinking about ways that things done well can be replicated, scaled or embraced to positive effect. Over the years, I’ve come to recognize five best practices that “ordinary” grantmakers have adopted to elevate their outcomes and impact to extraordinary levels. Here’s what these extraordinary grantmakers can teach us:

1. Create a culture of innovation.

Extraordinary funders cultivate conditions necessary to support innovation in organizations, and they follow a four-step process to help that innovation flourish. (I thank my mentor Alan Weiss for clarifying this process, which he discusses in his book The Innovation Formula.) These funders:

  • Regularly search for innovative ideas, from both inside and outside their specific field of focus.
  • Assess innovative ideas to see how they might align with and accelerate their work toward mission.
  • Develop the innovation, being sure to test and adjust as needed.
  • Implement the innovation, either within their own walls or out in the communities they serve.

2. Embrace an abundance mindset.

In my experience, one thing holds philanthropists back from achieving dramatic impact on the issues and causes they care most about: They have a poverty mentality. A poverty mentality in philanthropy is a belief that maintaining a Spartan operation equates to efficiency and effectiveness, and that you and/or your staff don’t deserve to invest in your own success.

Funders who embrace an abundance mentality believe that internal investment is important, and that the more they put into their operation and relationships, the more they get out of them.

3. Streamline operations.

Much has been written about efforts to “streamline” foundation application processes — reducing the number of hoops applicants must jump through, right-sizing applications to the grant amounts and asking questions in such a way that the answers are truly useful for funder decision making. In my opinion, extraordinary grantmakers have moved beyond streamlining applications and grant reports to reviewing every aspect of their internal operations to identify opportunities to streamline.

Extraordinary grantmakers regularly review their internal processes to identify blockages and inefficiencies. They make strategic internal investments to become ever more effective. They also hire great talent and trust them to do the job well.

4. Intentionally learn and improve.

Most philanthropies seek to be strategic and have an impact. Yet few build their own internal capacity to be strategic grantmakers. In particular, most funders forget to intentionally learn from their initial piloting and testing of strategies so that they can make early modifications and course corrections.

Extraordinary grantmakers regularly check in on their own activities and experiences to monitor lessons learned in real time, and they make the large and small course corrections that increase the effectiveness of their projects. Learning isn’t hard to do, but it must be intentional, documented, discussed within your team and it must lead to decision making.

5. Collaborate with other funders for impact.

What does it mean to collaborate? Extraordinary funders understand that collaborations happen in many different ways, but that all collaborations leverage the strengths of each collaborative partner to achieve a common goal.

Funder collaboration comes in all shapes and sizes. Too often we make assumptions, such as believing that collaboration requires pooling funds or a lengthy partnership or an extensive commitment of staff time. In fact, it can be just the opposite: a few funders jointly identifying an immediate need, each making their own grants in support of a common goal and periodically checking in together on progress and outcomes.

The five best practices I’ve covered here are by no means exhaustive. Extraordinary grantmakers are demonstrating new best practices on a regular basis. But these five will give you plenty to think about and try out in your own grantmaking.

For even more understanding of what makes an extraordinary grantmaker, download the free white paper, 5 Best Practices of Extraordinary Grantmakers.

Additional Reading: 

This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.

© 2018 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

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Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for almost 20 years. A member of the Million Dollar Consultant Hall of Fame and named one of America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers. Author of the award-winning book Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, which was named one of “The 10 Best Corporate Social Responsibility Books.” For more ways to improve your giving, visit Putnam Consulting Group.


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