10 Key Attributes of Grantmaking Initiatives


One of our favorite clients, the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, recently asked us to define the term “grantmaking initiative”. Simple, I thought. After all, nonprofits and foundations have used this term for ages. Here at Putnam Community Investment Consulting, we’ve spent the last 10 years designing, managing and evaluating foundation initiatives. We all know what an initiative is, but can we actually define the term? Turns out, I couldn’t. So I embarked on a quest. Several hundred Google searches, listserv queries, tweets, and LinkedIn posts later, I was surprised to learn that there is no universally accepted definition of “grantmaking initiative”. I did, however, discover 10 attributes shared by many grantmaking initiatives.

1.    Initiatives are sponsored by at least one foundation. The sponsors of an initiative are ready and able to address a particular issue; commit to a course of action; make a public declaration of their commitment; join together to conceive, develop, and launch the initiative; and leverage foundation assets to ensure its success. Lead sponsors often engage other funding partners such as foundations, corporations, individual donors, or public agencies to co-sponsor the initiative.

2.    Initiatives engage many people and organizations. First, the sponsoring foundation’s board approves the foundation’s role in developing the initiative and the budget. Once foundation leadership agrees on scope, they engage program and administrative staff in research, planning, launching, and managing the initiative. Often, a planning team of key funders, partners, consultants, and other stakeholders help to design the initiative. They may retain an intermediary organization to serve as initiative manager. Once the initiative is launched, grantees receive funding and other types of support such as training, technical assistance, communications resources. Evaluations may be conducted to measure the effectiveness of the initiative. Grantees can also take part in planning, while partner organizations play key roles without receiving funding. Other stakeholders might assume less formal roles. Champions are key stakeholders who actively promote the initiative by reaching out to peers, funders, politicians, and other influencers. Consultants are often retained to carry out various aspects of the initiative such as research, planning, communications, and evaluations.

3.   Initiatives are time-limited by design. Foundation initiatives conform to a general timeframe that is defined by sponsors at the onset. Often, the goal of the initiative helps to define its culmination. While most are described loosely as “multi-year initiatives” or “long-term initiatives” the average lifespan of a foundation initiative is somewhere between four and 10 years.

4.   Initiatives demand significant resources. Initiatives are typically complex, multi-faceted efforts to create long-term impact on important issues. Such impact frequently requires sustained funding and efficient coordination of existing resources and leveraged funds. To ensure effectiveness, initiatives allocate funds to evaluate impact and communicate results at key milestones.

5.   Initiatives advance a foundation’s mission. Just as grantmaking reflects the focus area of each funder, initiatives are crafted to conform to and advance a foundation’s existing mission. As an initiative becomes more successful, it can elevate the standing of a foundation among its peers and stakeholders while creating long-term, positive impact on issues of vital importance to communities.

6.   Initiatives require thoughtful research. Before embarking on the time-intensive process of developing and managing an initiative, foundations may conduct exploratory research to assess its potential for success. Research vehicles include environmental scans, focus groups, stakeholder interviews, literature review, site visits, reviews of existing models and best practices and other processes that can help to guide planning.

7.   Initiatives must be carefully planned. The roadmap established at the onset of an initiative is a touchstone for its success. Planning efforts should engage key stakeholders and others affected by the issue the initiative seeks to address. It is helpful to develop a comprehensive strategic plan or Theory of Change. There must be clear, measurable goals and objectives along with economies of scale. Examples include a single application and reporting form, group monitoring and evaluation, and board approval for the entire cohort of grantees.

8.   Initiatives are built on multiple strategies. Initiatives operate on multiple levels and use various strategies and tools to achieve their goals. Among these are communications, community education and mobilization, convening, direct service, evaluation and monitoring, grantmaking, influence of political and public will, leadership development, organizational capacity building, policy advocacy, and research.
9.   Initiatives seek a desired outcome. The most successful initiatives start by focusing on one specific issue, population, community, or field. As new issues come to light, this focus may evolve and change. The goal of an initiative usually falls into one of the following categories: To impact a problem or condition; to improve a community; to cultivate a field or subfield; to address an urgent need or neglected issue; to improve the performance of a set of organizations; to advance a process, productivity or efficiency; or to reduce costs. Success is often achieved when a new approach or solution developed by the initiative outperforms the current practice, resulting in a new “best practice” for the field.

10.  Initiatives are a unique form of grantmaking. We use the term “unique” lightly, because many initiatives do not lay claim to the following characteristics. However, initiatives are often distinct from programs, projects, and responsive grantmaking because they are: new endeavors; strategic; a discrete, focused undertaking; engage multiple partners, strategies, and levels; designed to set an agenda; time-limited; deliberate and proactive.  Additionally, initiatives leverage all of a foundation’s capacities and assets; convey the foundation’s point of view; seek to meet specific outcomes by maximizing resources and strategies while benefiting from economies of scale.

How do you define “grantmaking initiative”? What other attributes should be included in this list? Please leave a comment.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

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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