10 Common Pitfalls of Building an Initiative – And How To Avoid Them


Last week I posted 10 key attributes of grantmaking initiatives. If you’ve ever designed or managed an initiative, you already know it’s a complex process that can challenge even the most seasoned grantmaker, but well worth the investment of time and resources.

At my consulting firm, Putnam Community Investment Consulting, Inc., we have helped clients design, manage and evaluate more than 15 initiatives (you’ll find some examples at the end of this post). In the process of developing those initiatives, we’ve noticed that funders frequently fall prey to one or more of 10 common pitfalls. Here is my “top 10” list of those pitfalls, and recommendations for how to avoid them as you plan for future initiatives.

1.  Anticipate ongoing complexity — Grantmaking initiatives are rarely simple. They require many moving parts that can shift direction quickly. Always be vigilant so you can coordinate each component to optimize support rather than creating more silos.

2.  Lock in leadership support—Make sure that you have the full and unwavering support of the sponsoring foundation’s leadership and board before embarking on any initiative. That support will be invaluable throughout the lifespan of the initiative.

3.  Verify management capacity—A strong, resourceful manager is vital to the success of any initiative. You’ll need at least one person, consultant, or intermediary organization with the experience and skill to oversee every step of the process. Be sure to provide any administrative support they need to stay focused on the big picture.

4.  Engage foundation staff—Many critical roles can be filled by current foundation staff. Tap your existing resources to provide oversight, manage relationships, sustain communications and raise funds. Foundation staff can also pitch in to review proposals and conduct site visits.

5.  Allow ample time—Keep your initiative on track for success by allowing ample time for research, planning, relationship-building, and stakeholder engagement. Take time to design a strong initiative before launching it. Then, develop a Theory of Change to guide ongoing management and evaluation.

6.  Build strong relationships—In any successful initiative, a tremendous amount of relationship-building goes on behind the scenes. Schedule in-person meetings and phone conferences to engage partners, address concerns and put out fires. Let administrative staff manage scheduling so your key players can manage relationships.

7.  Cultivate ongoing communications—Internal and external communications are vital to the success of any initiative. Use in-house foundation communications staff if available. Otherwise, retain outside experts to identify audiences, hone key messages, and craft a communications plan. Consider ways to use social media tools, such as blogs, Twitter, and Facebook. Stakeholders and key audiences must be able to easily communicate the goals of the initiative at every stage of its development.

8.  Meet pressure with action—Foundation staff are often pressured to make initiative grants quickly, far before planning is even completed. Understandably, the foundation board wants to ensure that every dollar has a positive impact. Stakeholders should anticipate this pressure by planning in advance for initiative success. Then, pilot grants can be made during the planning stage to “test the waters” before launching the fully developed initiative.

9.  Embrace risk! —Any initiative or change effort involves risk. Be brave! Name the risks, then embrace them. Have the initiative planning team brainstorm a “Risk List.” Discuss strategies to prevent or mitigate each risk.  Then bring the Risk List to each planning meeting for review and updating. Over time, some risks will disappear and new ones will become evident. Remember: in community grantmaking, taking risks is often a vital part of creating solutions.

10.  Never forget that the foundation is on the line —It takes a major commitment for a foundation to launch a new initiative. The initiative’s success or failure will reflect directly back onto the foundation itself. With this in mind, it’s smart for any foundation to leverage all available resources to ensure success. The CEO or board chair might serve as an initiative champion. Top leadership could make key introductions to business, political, and community leaders. With strong support from the inside out, a well-planned initiative can generate years of positive impact.

Grantmaking Initiatives Supported by Putnam Community Investment Consulting

We’ve helped develop, manage or evaluate many foundation initiatives.  Here are a few examples:

  • MyCom (My Commitment, My Community) – A comprehensive youth development initiative in Cuyahoga County, Ohio (The Cleveland Foundation)
  • Jobs To Careers – A $16 million, national workforce development initiative for frontline health care workers (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation).
  • Community Clinic Core Support Initiative – A $7 million annual core support funding initiative for more than 200 community health clinics (Blue Shield of California Foundation).
  • Building Effective Substance Abuse Treatment – An organizational capacity building initiative for substance abuse treatment providers (Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation).
  • Connected by 25 – Part of a national effort to support youth transitioning out of foster care in Alameda County, CA (Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation).
  • Strengthening the Fiscal Health and Operational Structure of Clinics – A $1.5 million initiative to train and assist community health clinics on how to manage in difficult financial times. (Blue Shield of California Foundation).
  • Core Support Initiative Evaluation – Evaluation of the Community Clinic Core Support Initiative, which provided over $10 million in general support funding to 175 community health clinics and clinic networks over two years.

What has been your experience designing or managing initiatives?  Share your thoughts and “lessons learned” by posting 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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