A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

What Do You Know? What Can You Do?

This morning I found myself thinking about lessons learned about inspiration in grantmaking from the Girl Scout troop I co-led for many years.

Our girls didn’t do grantmaking, of course, but they did do a lot of community service projects. Several of our 11- to 14-year-olds earned the Silver Award, where the girl selects, plans, and implements a service project that benefits the community.

Two girls had no trouble with inspiration for service project. They “went deep,” using their passions and their significant volunteer experience with specific causes. The aspiring marine biologist organized a stream monitoring program for her neighborhood. The historical re-enactor compiled and tested a colonial cookbook for her local historical site.

But the other girls found the inspiration part excruciatingly hard.

Once they found their inspiration, each and every one of those service projects went remarkably smoothly and effortlessly from start to finish. But getting to inspiration was another story altogether. Most of the girls actually spent more time and effort worrying about picking the project than actually doing the project.

What was the problem? Most of these girls didn’t yet have a career focus or significant experience with specific causes or nonprofits. They were baffled and overwhelmed by all the different world problems and community service opportunities. So telling them to follow their passions, find a focus, or look for problems in need of solutions wasn’t very helpful. We adults proposed all sorts of ideas for useful causes and projects, but that wasn’t very helpful either.

Looking back, all of these girls eventually found their inspiration through their skill sets rather than the community’s needs. Once they realized that they could use their particular skills and abilities to do good somewhere—anywhere!—the little light bulbs went on over their heads. The artistic, crafty girls got inspired by a craft project that benefited cancer patients. The two natural leaders found opportunities to manage other children or teens through event planning and coordinating. The theatre/TV production girls worked as a team to create public service announcements. And so on.

Perhaps there’s a lesson here for us small grantmakers: Not everyone has the time, knowledge, experience, or staff to do deep grantmaking. But that doesn’t mean we can’t make a difference in our communities if we just use what we do know and can do.

We just need to get inspired.

Celeste LandExponent Philanthropy member Celeste Land of Vienna, Virginia, is a trustee with the Land Family Foundation based in Columbus, Ohio.

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