Shouting into the Mouth of a Cave


sea-cave-1528886_1920A colleague of mine recently forwarded a query from a funder that was looking to be more innovative in its grantmaking. This funder asked several questions of colleagues, such as:

  • How many grantmaking staff do you have?
  • How many grant cycles do you conduct each year?
  • Do you offer grants for programs? Operations? Capacity building?

As I considered this list, I confess I grew a bit frustrated. The person asking the questions was truly interested in being innovative, but the questions were all wrong. They were confined to the realm of what’s “normal” and what’s currently happening, rather than what was possible or wildly different. In addition, he’d only asked other funders, not anyone outside the field. Not surprisingly, the answers he received were all pretty much what you’d expect.

It seemed a bit like shouting questions into the mouth of a cave – all you’ll hear is an echo. Better to turn around and shout your questions into the world.

In this case, instead of asking how many grantmaking staff a funder has, why not ask how they engage the nonprofit community in the grant selection process? Or if they have defined new roles for program officers to encourage stronger community relationships? Or what they’ve done to increase equity in grantmaking? Or if they’ve explored other ways of distributing money other than grantmaking?

Instead of asking about grant cycles, why not ask how they respond to real-time needs? What they’re doing to reduce hurdles for applicants and to streamline the grantmaking process? Why not ask if they’ve figured out a way to eliminate funding cycles altogether?

As for what’s funded – why not ask for examples of funding outside the “usual suspects”? Who funds something wildly different? Who makes a point of funding multiple needs within each grantee (an operations, capacity, program trifecta perhaps)? Who provides funds to help grantees become strong thought leaders or voices for their sectors?

And why stop at asking other funders when you’re looking for innovative ideas? Why not ask business people? Government agencies? Creative artists? Faith leaders? Prisoners? People in other countries who live in totally different circumstances? Technology makes it easy to reach the world – why not push your universe a little further?

By asking provocative questions to a wide variety of people, you’ll get a broader range of answers, experiences and perspectives. They won’t all align with your mission and strategy, but they will absolutely get you thinking about your work in new and different ways. And that is the seed of all things innovative.

© 2017 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, has helped to transform the impact of top global philanthropies for over 18 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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Kris Putnam-Walkerly serves as a trusted advisor to foundation leaders and high-wealth donors across the globe. As an advisor, Kris transfers learning to leaders and their teams so they have the ability to build their own internal capacity to be successful in their work. Kris’s clients report immediate and dramatic improvement in both personal performance and philanthropic impact.

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November 14, 2017 – Southeastern Council on Foundations’ Annual Conference, Trustees-Only Luncheon, Orlando, FL 

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