The Power of Small


seedlingI’ve been thinking small lately.

To be specific, I’ve been thinking about small foundations and the immense power they hold. I’ve just finished presenting at Exponent Philanthropy’s conference and met a number of highly engaged and courageous small-foundation grantmakers who are eager to tap into their own power for change.

I led a workshop for about 100 of these grantmakers and explored various ways in which they can make a huge difference with relatively small investments. We talked about tactics like funding research, using their convening power, seeding innovation and funding advocacy. These aren’t new strategies. In truth, these and many other approaches are available to small and large grantmakers alike.

But there’s one area where small foundations lead the pack in terms of getting things done in ways that make a big impact. They have the freedom to act.

Small foundations are not limited by a preponderance of self-imposed rules and regulations. Their work isn’t slowed to a snail’s pace by complex bureaucracy. They don’t drown themselves or grantees in reams of forms and reports. They don’t have to wait for permission from higher-ups to move forward.

This gives small foundations the ability to be nimble in response to need. They can be hyper focused on specific issues and drill down deep. They can design and deploy strategies faster than large foundations, and can be every bit as strategic in doing so.

Small efforts can also lead to big changes. For example, consider the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It focuses on advancing “women’s equality and representation in American politics and in the field of contemporary art.” That’s pretty darned focused.

They’ve conducted and published political research on every woman’s gubernatorial race since 1998, and shared their knowledge to help more women win, including producing the book,Keys to the Governor’s Office, a guide for women running for governor. Talk about drilling down!

And they’ve formed strategic partnerships with a host of organizations and supported others with grants and endowments to elevate American women in politics and the arts across the board. All told, that’s a pretty well-rounded strategy.

This isn’t to say that all large foundations are cumbersome. Every size foundation has its place and value. But many in philanthropy – and too often those within small foundations ­ – are too quick to write off the very high value the small foundations can provide.

So here’s to the flexibility, agility and creativity that the little “mom and pop” foundation in your town can bring to solving just about any challenge. Here’s to the power of small!


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a global philanthropy advisor and was recently named one of “America’s Top 25 Philanthropy Speakers.” She is the featured speaker at the North Carolina Network of Grantmaker’s Health Legacy Foundation Board Summit on October 17th in High Point, NC.

“Our evaluation work with Putnam was essential to supporting one of the most significant grantmaking endeavors our foundation has ever had. Kris helped our board see the importance of looking beyond the grant award itself, and we are looking forward to doing more evaluations like this as our organization matures.”

~Alison Belfrage, Executive Director, Ohio State Bar Foundation

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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