“It must be so fun to give money away!” We’ve all heard this reaction when we tell people we are staff or board members of a grantmaking organization. And yes, it is fun. But it’s also hard work. Good grantmaking, as we know, is about far more than reading piles of proposals or signing big checks. It’s about getting out into the community, identifying needs, evaluating potential solutions, and thoughtfully employing dollars to make an impact.
At a past Exponent Philanthropy National Conference, we presented a session with GrantCraft’s Jen Bokoff about doing just this—identifying priority needs and leveraging points for change, whether in a specific geographic region or around a particular issue area.
Missed the session? Here are the top 10 ideas we presented to fit a variety of timeframes, budgets, and operating styles.
1. Get Your Boots Muddy
As grantmakers, our best insights often come when we get away from the comfort of our offices. We need to take time to really listen to and experience first-hand the work of those we fund. This is Jenna’s “muddy boots” theory. As a program officer, she keeps a pair of boots on hand that she wears to site visits to nature preserves, construction sites, etc. And they are very muddy! The insights that come from being on-the-ground (literally!) are critical for good grantmaking.
2. Listen to the Experts, Including Your Grantees
No matter how many years of experience you have as a grantmaker, you are usually one step removed from the programs of the nonprofits you fund. It’s important to view philanthropy as a way to channel resources to the experts doing the work. It’s not a way for you to set the agenda because of your role as funder.
Create opportunities to gain insights from and have meaningful dialogue with your grantees and others working in the field. Carol especially enjoys attending grantee-organized symposia where grantees present new research, even if she is the only funder in the room. Not only is the enthusiasm for the work contagious, but she comes back to the office with new funding ideas to explore.
3. Read Up
Reading newspapers, blogs, and books is one of the best ways to keep up with trends that can inform your grantmaking. Even blocking out 15 minutes a day to read is a great time investment. It can spark new ideas, and give you contacts. Moreover, it can help provide context when you meet with grantees dealing with a specific challenge.
4. Get the Whole Picture, Not Just One Piece
When considering a new funding area (or re-evaluating an existing area), think outside the box. You’d be amazed what you can learn from bus drivers, emergency room doctors, baristas and bartenders who interact with dozens of community members. Ask for their insights. What they say might surprise you! As Ball Brothers Foundation explores ways to improve the quality of life in its hometown, Jenna talks with downtown business owners, neighborhood associations, neighbors, economists, bus drivers, and others. She often asks questions like: “What do you like most about living here?” “How have you seen the city change in the past five years?” “What challenges in our city do you feel aren’t being addressed?”
5. Seek Out Things That Make You Uncomfortable
When Carol began her work at the Ho/Chiang Foundation, she was new to the world of funding for palliative care programs. No doubt, it’s an issue area that many find uncomfortable. Carol had her worries too. But she acknowledged these realities, adopted a learning mindset, and (employing the techniques we list here) worked hard to get up to speed in the field.
Carol quickly discovered that her new program area was exciting from a grantmaker’s perspective. There were many opportunities for private funding to make a meaningful difference in palliative care. Similarly, the dedication and compassion of the people working in the field personally inspired Carol. Professional and personal growth comes when we expand our comfort zones.
6. Visualize Funding and Gaps To Highlight Opportunity
By the end of Carol’s first year in her new position, she was able to identify the five highest priority needs in the field of palliative care, along with specific ways private funding might help address them. She then determined how the Ho/Chiang Foundation’s existing grants fit this framework.
Clearly identifying how much of its grantmaking budget was going towards each priority helped the foundation decide if it was satisfied with its current grantmaking strategy. Carol created an Excel spreadsheet that visually mapped this information. However, a pie chart, graph, or an actual mapping program would also work well. Depending on the funding field and the audience you are trying to reach, visuals can help bring information to life!
7. Tap Into Tools
There’s no need to reinvent the wheel. Tap into existing resources that help funders identify gaps and funding opportunities. Interested in a specific issue area? IssueLab, a free service from Candid, provides a summary of foundation funding and research on 35+ issues ranging from animal welfare to substance abuse. Looking at a specific geographical area? Check out Foundation Maps for interactive maps that show funding distributions from the neighborhood level to the global level. Want to engage your board or staff in assessing needs? Check out Monitor Institute’s The Strategy Landscape tool. Or, simply set up a Google Alert to feed new content directly to your inbox about a topic or geographic area.
8. Know What’s Needed, but Don’t Overdo It
When you are eager to share your knowledge and ideas, there’s a good chance you might overwhelm your board or staff with too much information. We’ve all heard stories about lengthy reports that funders file without reading, or program logic models that are too visually complicated for anyone to understand. A good scan should highlight important ideas, clearly and concisely, and offer opportunity for reaction and action. In the example in #6 above, Carol was sure that a spreadsheet could effectively summarize information for her foundation’s board. Know your audience and its preferred learning style.
9. Don’t Try To Learn on Your Own
Tap the knowledge and power of other funders! Affinity groups, regional grantmaking associations, and funder collaboratives (both formal and informal) are a great place to build your knowledge and network with other funders. Through local and regional grantmaking groups Jenna gained new knowledge about a myriad of topics affecting the community including opioid and tobacco use, family economic insecurity, and infant mortality, to name a few. And she’s gained insights into other funders are helping to address these challenges.
10. Remember: Scanning Is Ongoing
Build listening and scanning activities into your daily, monthly, and quarterly routines (or however you like to think about or track your time). As a GrantCraft’s Scanning the Landscape 2.0 guide describes, as a funder you “don’t have the luxury of being behind the curve because you’re going to end up making decisions that are irrelevant.” Build time in your schedule every day to read new articles or publications, get out in the field at least twice a month, meet with another funder each quarter, or organize an annual convening of grantees and other experts centered on a specific topic. Also, consider any documents you draft in your scanning work, including visuals like maps or graphs, to be living documents that you continually update with new information.
We’d love to hear how your organization uses scanning. Share your own tips in the comment box below!
Getting Out Into the Community: Start Identifying Gaps
On-Ramp to Catalytic Philanthropy
February 16 – April 27, 2023 / 2:00 pm – 4:00 pm ET
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About the Authors
Jenna Wachtmann is a program officer with Ball Brothers Foundation, a family foundation in Muncie, Indiana. Previously she held roles in fundraising, communications, and programming with several social service agencies. Jenna completed her executive master of arts degree in philanthropic studies at the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in 2015.
Carol Gallo is executive director at The Y.C. Ho/Helen & Michael Chiang Foundation.