A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Making the Early Grant, and Very Often the First

“When we first came to you, all we had was an idea. Blackstone’s early support for the climate/forests idea helped to precipitate a vast wave of organizational, scientific, and programmatic activity that has culminated in placing it at the top of the international agenda.”

Jan Hartke, Partnership Director of the Clinton Foundation, 2011

Blackstone Ranch Institute is a funding initiative established in 2006 that is part of the Black Family Foundation in Erie, Pennsylvania. We are known among our grantees as a nimble, flexible, eclectic, and quick-moving funder that provides money and early strategic advice without burdensome process or bureaucracy. When we started, we decided to keep a small board of directors, to disperse grants quickly to take advantage of moments for action, and not to confuse our own organizational growth with effectiveness.

We have directed our resources at inspiring new initiatives in the growing domain of environmental sustainability, from the design of new cities to the protection of biodiversity. We have been able to seed new initiatives that have grown into national and global networks, campaigns and programs that have multiple impacts at different levels, and often set a template or tone for future developments in a particular field of practice. We have developed an understanding of social profit as a way to measure the value and integrity of our impact as funders, and discovered that our niche is the early grant – very often the first grant – at the inception point or critical early growth point of a new initiative.

But behind the nimbleness, flexibility, and eclectic inclination is some early discipline. Straightforward funding criteria, clear conceptual and philosophical boundaries between what we will fund and not fund, and a rigorous devotion to our operational principles allow us to be nimble and to take early, experimental risks with things that often have more potential than proven track record at the time we offer the funding. We have discovered that we will not have the former freedoms without the latter standards.

Some of the basic lessons that we have learned, and questions that we have asked ourselves when presented with a new request, include the following:

Be practical and realistic.

Is this just a good idea, or is it part of a larger plan of action with real intent to achieve something? Is it one person’s idea, or is it something that has come as a demand from an organization’s constituents or partners and will thus be adopted by others? Is someone ready to lead once the initiative has some early form, or is this likely to be an amorphous collective? Are there other funders who will help move this ahead in the next five years?

Be clear about what you are willing to do as a funder and communicate that openly to your potential grantees.

Are you providing one or two inception grants, or are you willing to get behind this with annual funding or a substantial grant to cover the early development over the next five years or more? Do the potential grantees actually have relationships with other funders or only the hope that they will? Are you in a position to help them make connections with other funders or not? Are you likely to be drawn in by individuals or new organizational start-ups that offer promising talent or compelling ideas but may not be realistic about how to achieve their stated objectives or able to do so, or are you going to be seriously committed to a achieving some tangible and relevant responses to a major social challenge or need?

Try not to constrain or inadvertently halt the birth process with too much formal process, or expect things to conform neatly to prescribed benchmarks or outcomes.

Be willing to see how things evolve. Very often things develop in ways that are different than originally anticipated, but which may actually be more relevant to needs and possibilities than original expectations. In very early stage funding one is supporting creative potential, so as a funder you need to trust the creative process and be open to different developmental possibilities. Can you see ways forward for the initiative you want to support that will provide reasonable assurance of some worthy outcomes? Are you going to be flexible enough to adjust your own expectations and metrics for outcome as things evolve

At early stages of new initiatives, it is important to establish your own definition of or parameters for success.

Make it a priority to develop your own criteria for what constitutes success and meaningful impact to you. Once you do that, you will have established parameters that allow you to take risks and experiment a bit. If you are flexible in how you define success for yourself, you will often find that outcomes a few years after your award of a grant may be not only acceptable, but also greater than what you could have imagined.

Having taken the time at the beginning to work out some basic operating principles and establish some priorities about who we wanted to fund and what impact and success ultimately meant to us, we have been able to proceed without a lot of bureaucratic clutter or confusion about what works for us, and have been able to make decisions with confidence. 

John Richardson is executive director of the Blackstone Ranch Institute. During the early 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, John investigated the world’s most complex humanitarian relief operations in Africa and the Balkans as a troubleshooter for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). He has also been an adjunct professor of international politics at the University of New Mexico, a mediator in civil disputes, and written about travel and politics for a variety of national publications. He was a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in central Africa in the late 1970s. He lives in Taos, New Mexico.

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