Tools for Effective Grantmaking - Give Smart

Grading Foundation Assessment

All philanthropy is personal.

That's one of the "terrible truths" cited by Thomas Tierney and Joel Fleischman in Give Smart: Philanthropy that Gets Results.  Tierney spoke today, along with Kristi Kimball of the Hewlett Foundation and Jeff Cain of Philanthropy Daily at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute.

According to Tierney, the fact that all philanthropy is personal has several implications:

  • Giving is a voluntary act.  Individual givers have different motivations for giving.  In many cases, family philanthropy in particular is first about engaging the family and secondarily about philanthropy, which can sometimes be at odds with impactful giving.  According to Tierney, "fewer, bigger, longer" gifts (in the form of grants or donations) results in greater impact.  Multi-generational giving frequently results in more, smaller, and shorter gifts as each family member develops his or her own giving priorities;
  • Impactful giving is about more than money.  It also involves giving time and talent.  The notion of giving more than money dovetailed interestingly with one of Kristi Kimball's key points: philanthropists that determine how their grantees (or donees) should implement programs risk missing or excluding innovative solutions.  In other words, grantmakers (she was speaking from the perspective of a foundation) that select only grantees that fit within a proscribed foundation theory of change risk missing out on high-performing organizations that are tackling problems in innovative ways.  There is a tension, then, between giving more than money and letting grantees determine how best to implement their programs.

At the risk of being overly simplistic, my big takeaway from this session was that giving is complicated, and that the various reasons that people cite for giving are all valid.  Giving, on one level, is quite a simple act.  I have money.  You need money.  You are doing something I believe in.  I give you money so that you can do that thing I believe in.

But impactful giving isn't nearly that simple.  I have money.  I have strong beliefs about what's important.  You have more experience than I do with the program that you're working on.  Kristi Kimball would argue (and I'd agree) that I should do some research to see if you're effective at what you're doing, and then give you money to keep doing it.  But then how do I know that you're doing it well?  Furthermore, how do I then know that I'm doing my job (as a giver of philanthropic funds) well?

Thomas Tierney and Joel Fleischman posit six questions that philanthropists should answer:

  1. What are my values and beliefs?
  2. What is "success" and how can it be achieved?
  3. What am I accountable for?
  4. What will it take to get the job done?
  5. How do I work with grantees?
  6. Am I getting better?

Future posts will delve further into some of these questions.  For today, I'd encourage the following:

  • If you work for a foundation: ask yourself the questions above and really take some time to think about the answers.  And ask the questions again in three months.  And in six months. And so on.
  • If you work for a nonprofit: ask your funders a version of these questions.  Ask about their values and their perception of success.  Ask them how they will help you get there - what they are willing to invest in your success to help their own.  Ask how they work with their grantees and what kinds of feedback they solicit.

While there are no easy answers, understanding that philanthropy is personal and engaging on that level will help promote some of the conversations that we need to have as a sector to know if our giving is smart and if our programs are impactful.

 

Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gibsonsgolfer/5516389372/
Author: Dahna Goldstein
May 23, 2011, 03:17 PM

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