A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Ask Your Way to Impact: Holding Up the Mirror

How can a small foundation with a limited grantmaking budget leverage its resources to make an even greater impact? This post includes questions to ask yourself in pursuit of greater impact.

Each foundation’s unique approach to impact will represent its passion, character, leadership, capacity, and history. As we dialogue with other funders, nonprofits, and thought leaders in the field, I find it’s important to honestly self-assess—to have great conversations with our board about our unique appetite and approach.

Here are some questions to get you going.

Appetite for change

Our current approach is usually a mix of intentional thought and a bit of what feels natural. We have to know why we are where we are and truthfully assess how far we’re willing to go to affect change. Sometimes this is the hardest part.

  • Are there any “sacred cows” in our current approach?
  • What are we doing because we’ve always done it that way? Should we keep doing it that way?
  • Are we willing to change? Are we willing to risk? To fail?
  • Are we willing to listen and be flexible and responsive in our grantmaking?
  • How important is discretionary grantmaking?
  • How committed are we to moving the needle?
  • Are we willing to sacrifice breadth for depth?

Capacity for work

Our path to impact has to reflect our unique character and what we bring to the table.

  • What sort of skills, connections, expertise, and resources do we have to offer?
  • What is our capacity in terms of asset base, manpower, experience, time, and ability/willingness to stay apprised of trends in the field?
  • What types of investments make sense?
  • What type of leverage can we create?

Our foundation has three busy board members with limited experience in philanthropy and limited time to devote, and I run the foundation part time. It makes sense for us to invest larger dollar amounts in fewer organizations.

Areas of passion

Ultimately, philanthropy is most rewarding when we are wholeheartedly engaged in the work.

  • What causes keep us up at night?
  • What are we uniquely passionate about that other foundations aren’t?
  • Which grants have been the most rewarding? What made them so special?
  • Which grants have brought about meaningful, measurable change?
  • What types of investments have been effective?

The best path to impact lies at the intersection of effectiveness, capacity, and passion. As you engage in self-reflection and board dialogue, you will find that a host of possible strategies for impact emerge.

Couple these insights with powerful dialogue with other funders, nonprofits, thought leaders, and colleagues, and you’ll slowly be able to articulate a powerful path for impact that is both effective, deeply fulfilling, and an expression of the unique character of your foundation.

Lindsay Matush is executive director of The Brown Sisters Foundation in St. Louis, MO. In 2008 she founded Vario Consulting, where she helps small businesses, foundations, and nonprofits become more effective by becoming more strategic.


  1. […] By Lindsay Matush, The Brown Sisters Foundation How can a small foundation with a limited grantmaking budget leverage its resources to make an even greater impact? This first post in our 3-part series shares questions to ask other funders in the pursuit of impact. The second shares questions for nonprofits; the third explores the value of foundation self-assessment. […]

  2. […] How can a small foundation with a limited grantmaking budget leverage its resources to make an even greater impact? This second post in our 3-part series offers questions to ask nonprofit organizations as your foundation pursues impact. The first post shared questions to ask other funders; the third will explore the value of foundation self-assessment. […]

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