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All Aboard for Practices That Matter

August 19, 2014

Headshot_nikki_powellIt's a common refrain these days: a perfect storm is changing the way philanthropy is done, and that change is likely to accelerate in the years to come.

Some of the forces driving this change are external, beyond the control of stakeholders in the field. Others are emerging from the field itself and represent some of the best opportunities philanthropy has to embrace, leverage, and accelerate its own evolution.

One of those internal forces is the simple yet confounding issue of grantmaking practices.

You don't need me to tell you that complexity is the rule when it comes to grantmaking strategies. Every funder has its own ideas about who it wants to fund, why, and the outcomes and measures of success it uses and is looking for.

At the same time, meeting nonprofit needs has become trickier, as the demand for services continues to outpace the resources available to meet those needs, making the decisions on who should be funded that much harder.

Against this backdrop, I'm pleased to report that some of the most exciting changes in philanthropy, changes that involve the how of grantmaking, are just waiting for funders to take advantage of them. As the association representing grants management professionals – the people who actually develop and execute grantmaking practices at foundations – Grants Managers Network has a unique vantage point on the ways in which grantmaking practice is becoming more important. Indeed, we feel so strongly about the issue, we've decided to share our perspective in a new report titled Blueprint for the Future.

In the Blueprint, we acknowledge some of the external forces at play in the field – things like rapidly changing technology; data generation, collection, and analysis; and public policy. But the main focus of the report is on grantmaking practice – how grants get made, and how looking more closely at one's grantmaking practices can (and probably should) lead to change.

Let's be honest: grantmaking is a field without a guidebook, so grants managers are working harder than ever to develop and implement efficient and effective practices while also managing the results of those practices in terms of reporting and measurement. In effect, we're trying to build the boat as we help sail it – and, as a result, have less time to think and innovate. That's not an ideal situation. Which is why Blueprint for the Future calls for greater resource development and sharing among grants managers, with the goal of providing the people who do the actual work of grantmaking with access to the knowledge and sources needed to develop practices that work for grants managers, their organizations, and the field.

The report also recognizes that those in the field who don't work on a day-to-day basis with the minutiae of how grants get made need better information about how their decisions inform (and are informed by) grantmaking practices at the ground level. Much of that knowledge inevitably will flow upward from grants managers themselves. But program staff and foundation executives also need to proactively seek out information with respect to the most effective grantmaking practices and how they influence funding decisions. The idea is that better-trained professionals will lead to better practices, as well as a deeper understanding of why those practices matter.

Perhaps most importantly, this kind of knowledge creation and sharing requires more connections and better collaborations among grants managers and other philanthropy professionals than has traditionally been the case. Both within individual organizations and across the field as a whole, we’ve got to get professionals to step out of their siloed domains and start talking and working both vertically and horizontally with other stakeholders.

GMN’s Blueprint for the Future is an optimistic document and outlines a way of working in philanthropy that has the potential to flatten hierarchies and more effectively distribute roles and responsibilities within and beyond organizations, all with the goal of driving more and better mission-driven outcomes. After all, isn't that what drew us to this work in the first place?

Nikki Powell is communications manager at Grants Managers Network, a professional association of nearly 3,000 grantmaking professionals. You can find her and GMN on Twitter @nikkiwpowell and @grantsmanagers.

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