The ‘I Have No More Grant Budget’ Playbook

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Four Almost-Free Things You Can Do To Help Nonprofits After You’ve Spent Your Grant Budget


If you are like most of my philanthropic clients, when COVID-19 hit, you jumped into action. You heroically provided additional funding to grantees, created or joined local crisis response funds to coordinate resources, extended grant deadlines, eliminated funding restrictions, and created free virtual trainings to help nonprofits, all while embracing new technology and learning to work remotely. Many of you accomplished this by working long hours each week.

Then, a collective moment of dramatic awakening to police brutality and institutional racism required additional engagement critical to the Black Lives Matter movement. For those already embracing your equity and anti-racism work, it was a chance to direct further attention and resources to this critical work.

But now, many funders finding themselves in an awkward situation. They’ve intentionally allocated all or most of their annual grant budget to meet pressing needs like saving lives, preventing economic devastation, and creating systems change. But they still have many months left in their fiscal year. Their primary tool – grant funding – is gone.

What to do? The good news is there are many things you can still do to help nonprofits. And you probably have more time to do them, now that you won’t be spending it preparing grant summaries and board dockets. So, follow the “I Have No More Grant Budget” Playbook:

1.   Find more money.

Get a little creative and brainstorm ways you can find additional funds. Can you increase your payout rate or allocation this year? Or can you create innovative ways to increase your payout? The Ford Foundation, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, and other philanthropies are borrowing $1.7 billion by issuing bonds to finance additional grants. Maybe you have other assets you can convert into cash. In 2019, philanthropist Mitzi Perdue wanted to support organizations rescuing and rehabilitating child trafficking survivors but had already allocated her grant budget. So, she created an auction, Win This Fight, and tapped her well-heeled friends, colleagues, and celebrities to donate prized possessions to benefit these organizations.

Do you have relationships with any of the 90 percent of billionaires who haven’t yet donated in response to the pandemic? What if these individuals want to do something, but nobody has given them a clear call to action? Who better than well-connected philanthropists like you to effectively tap this group or their financial advisors? Like your assets, their net worth might have taken a hit. But 2020 has also likely offered a clearer sense of their privilege and the many problems that need solving.

Another way to generate more public dollars? Create more funding streams that don’t already exist by advocating for systems and policy change. The Rockefeller Foundation’s recent announcement about its advocacy work to “Reset the Table” on food security in response to the problems laid bare by COVID-19 does just that.

2.   Ask your grantees what they need. Then listen.

In 2020, when money is scarce and we urgently need to disrupt power dynamics, it’s the perfect time for funders to ask, “Are we giving nonprofits the support they need?” While it might feel like the wrong question, when you have no more dollars to give, it’s a way to increase abundance in your work. In reality, your grantees might not think you are supporting their work as much as you believe you are.

Let them know that it’s okay to be transparent about what’s not working—they won’t be penalized later. And ask them to be as specific as they can. You may not be able to do something, but the least you can do is listen. Create a list of what your grantees need, and determine if and how you can help.

Explain the rationale for your decisions and when next year’s grant funds will be available. Don’t feel guilty—you made your funding decisions for a reason. You tried to provide the most help you could, based on the information you had, while in a crisis. You don’t have to have all the answers, money, or resources. But if you communicate honestly and often during a crisis, and listen intently, you’ll build trust. That way, everyone will know where they stand and how to better support one another in other ways besides dollars.

3.   Remember that you are more than money.

You don’t want to saddle your nonprofits with “help” that isn’t helpful, or they feel obliged to take it because you are their funder. Use the list generated above as a punch list based on your grantees’ actual needs.

See if there are themes that emerge among a group of grantees who have the same need. Maybe they need creative ideas for virtual fundraising events, and you could bring in an expert to help them.

You could also match needs to talents in your organization or community. For example, your communications staff member could provide training or offer feedback on nonprofits’ communications materials.

The Kresge Foundation’s Education Program intentionally sped up grantmaking in response to COVID-19 and had already allocated most of its grant budget for this fiscal year by summer. Deputy Director Caroline Altman Smith and her team were determined to find more ways they can help grantees. She says, “Helping introduce your grantees to other funders is always cited by the Center of Effective Philanthropy as the number one ‘beyond the grant check’ support that nonprofits want from their funders.” So she called her grantees to ask them which funders they were most interested in connecting with and offered to make introductions if she can. She’s also volunteering more, like serving on grantee advisory committees. And she’s inviting grantees to co-present about their work at virtual conferences to help them gain greater exposure.

4.   Become a better version of yourself.

Philanthropies have a tremendous opportunity to seize today’s crises as an opportunity to improve. One area ripe for improvement is likely your strategy. This pandemic has shown us the futility of spending one year to create a three-year strategic plan. In a world where disruption and volatility are the status quo, the strategy must be easily adaptable to achieve positive social change. More than ever, philanthropists must be aware of the changing environment in which they operate, and the implications of their actions on others. There’s no time like the present to create a clear decision-making road map of the actions you need to take to move from where you are today to where you want to be in 12 months.

You’ll have an easier time getting there if you also have an abundance mindset, which means believing that you not only deserve to strengthen, grow, and improve so that you are best positioned to help others, but that you must. That means investing in the people, technology, operations, and expertise that help you and your team deliver value on your mission—and therefore to the grantees and communities that you serve.

The Packard Foundation has been doing this for years with its Organizational Effectiveness Program focused on capacity and leadership development opportunities for organizations and cohorts and sharing what they learn—a fantastic free resource. They also quickly pivoted to offer virtual capacity-building support. It’s a good reminder that these investments don’t have to cost money either. Lots of great resources or approaches are entirely free.

The most important thing for funders to remember as you create your 2021 “I Have No More Grant Budget” Playbook is that cash doesn’t solve problems. People do—by embracing an abundance mindset, collaborating, and innovating their way forward. But when you’re juggling so many demands, it’s easy to lose sight of the overarching ways you can transform your work beyond the grant check. My latest book, Delusional Altruism: Why Philanthropists Fail To Achieve Change and What They Can Do To Transform Givingoffers more insights on abundant grantmaking.

Not having money presents a silver lining reality check. By leading with abundance rather than cash, you’ll realize how often scarcity thinking holds people back. You’ll appreciate the momentum and joy that comes from abundantly supporting one another in new ways.

This article was originally written for and published by Forbes.

© 2020 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

If you need help implementing any of these ideas, let’s talk!
You can email me, call me at +1.800.598.2102, or schedule a call

Want to learn about the biggest self-created challenge facing philanthropists? Listen to my latest interview with Rusty Stahl on his Fund The People Podcast!

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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