6 Back to School Lessons for Grantmakers


Get excited and be prepared to launch your new initiative.

After a long summer of late nights, fun in the sun and a relaxed schedule, families across the country are preparing for kids to get back to school.

There’s a lot of build up to that first big day – planning for cooler weather, getting school supplies, buying new clothes, reuniting with old friends, and making new ones. There is a magical sense of anticipation, excitement and butterflies that makes the start of each new school year memorable and special. What potential new friendships will this year bring? What new and exciting things will be learned? Starting the year off right prepares students, teachers and parents alike for a successful year ahead.

I’ve also found that same sense of excitement and anticipation in my work with funders who are launching a new initiative or an entirely new philanthropy. There is the same sense of expectation and nervousness that makes the start of the process thrilling and filled with hope. Here are six lessons from the back-to-school excitement for grantmakers:


1. Don’t forget to complete your summer reading. At the end of each summer, there are the kids who complete their summer reading and go back to class prepared to participate, learn and stay on target. Then there are those who blew off their summer reading entirely. They go back to school unprepared and behind the rest of the kids. Which one do you want to be? In philanthropy it’s important to do your homework – to stay up on fundraising trends, local issues, and the latest waves of technology and how they affect charitable giving. Constant learning is essential to develop insight into what will help grantmakers better understand how they are doing in their work and how to improve.

2. Shop early, but not exhaustively. Remember when you showed up to class with a spiral notebook only to find out what you really needed was a 3-ring binder? No matter how prepared you are for your first day, there are likely to be additional resources needed after the start of school. Knowing what you’ll need in terms of resources and securing it before you launch a philanthropic initiative is critical. But you should also understand that there will be unanticipated needs once your work begins. Maybe your initiative will become more complex than you anticipate, and you’ll need to onboard new partners or support. Perhaps you’ll discover new opportunities for evaluation, storytelling, or advocacy that will add impact as you go along. Be sure to set some time and resources aside for that purpose.

3. Schedule play dates with new friends. With a new school year comes new friendships. Many students schedule playdates or hang outs before the start of the school year to get to know their peers better on a deeper level. Grantmakers should also be networking to get to know who the players will be involved in a new initiative. Well before you launch, find out who else is working in the same area. How could you leverage one another’s work? Where might you overlap? In addition to understanding how you can strengthen your own work, you’ll avoid stepping on toes with your launch and alienating potential allies and partners.

4. Plan your outfit for the first day ahead of time. In high school, image is everything. You wanted to make sure your clothes help reflect who you are, so you plan all summer for that perfect first outfit. For grantmakers, your messaging is the image you want to portray. You have to decide how you want to present yourself and make sure all the pieces are in place and ready to work together before the big day. Before you launch your initiative, consider the tools you’ll need to promote it — fact sheets, a website, a mobile app, a network of ambassadors, etc. Then make sure everything and everyone is prepped and ready to work it!

5. Get a good night’s sleep. Starting a school day bleary-eyed and groggy is never a good idea. The same goes for when you are launching a new initiative when you’re exhausted and still recovering from another program or event can drain your energy and undermine your focus. To others, it also can make you appear less enthusiastic and seem insincere about your work. When considering the timing of a new initiative, make sure it doesn’t overlap too much with other demands, so you can put your best foot – and your brightest mind – forward when your new work gets started.

6. It’s still cool to be excited. The back-to-school excitement is palpable as everyone prepares for the first big day. As adults, sometimes we make an effort to curb our enthusiasm about our work in the name of propriety. As funders, we want to appear professional and in control, so we stifle our excitement and mask our anticipation. After all, we aren’t school children any more. But how boring is that? Excitement and enthusiasm are contagious! They motivate those around us, and bring a new and exciting energy to a grantmaking initiative. We can convey our excitement and still be seen as capable, effective grantmakers with whom others will want to work.

As parents, why do we go through all this planning and promote all this excitement? Because we know that a great first day of school can set the tone for an entire year. As funders, why don’t we do the same? Think about the next “big day” coming up for your work. What can you do now to prepare for a successful first day? What resources will you need? Who else should you work with? What tools will need to be in place to communicate about it? What will be the best timing for beginning it? And how can you leverage your own excitement to engage others?

If you want to set yourself up for a successful launching day, sometimes you need additional advice. If you’re not sure where to begin preparing, I can help! Schedule a callwith me or shoot me an email to learn more about my philanthropic advisory services. We’ll get you excited about achieving your philanthropic goals so you can focus on making sure your new initiative has a lasting impact on your community.

Let’s Get Started!

This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.com.

© 2019 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

About Kris Putnam-Walkerly


I’m a global philanthropy expert, advisor and award-winning author. I help ultra-high net worth donors, celebrities, foundations and Fortune 500 companies dramatically increase the clarity, speed, impact and joy of their giving. I’m the author of Confident Giving: Sage Advice for Funders, was named one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers”(along with U2’s Bono!), I write about philanthropy for Forbes.comAlliance MagazineDe Dikke Blauwe and am frequently quoted in leading publications such as BloombergNPRand WSJ.

Whether you are just getting started in philanthropy, want to refresh your giving strategy, or need to catapult yourself to your desired future, I can help. Let’s talk! Call me at +1-800-598-2102 x1, email me at kris@putnam-consulting.com or schedule a call.


Kris has a direct, matter-of-fact style and unquestionable logic when it comes to corporate giving in ways that are efficient, effective and ultimately beneficial for communities and companies alike. She also knows how to explain her ideas clearly and simply in ways that shine through the fog of ‘corporate-speak’.”

Alicia Procello Maddox, President, Avery Dennison Foundation


Want to learn more? Visit my website to learn how I help funders, access free resources, and read client testimonials.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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