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#315 Winning Small, Failing Small – Why Not Every Grant Has to Change the World

July 5th, 2018

Richard Marker

What, you ask? Haven’t you recently been writing about the need for the philanthropy world to address equity, ethics, systemic changes, existential challenges…. you know, the big picture stuff. Is it really ok to think small with your philanthropy?

There are lots of reasons for this pause:

Too many people I have met recently, especially those early in their decision to become self-reflective philanthropists, are finding themselves paralyzed by the scope of what needs to be done. “The needs are so great – we don’t want to waste a penny.” Or, “I keep hearing about making an ‘impact’; we are working so hard to make sure our money makes a difference that we are afraid that we might make a mistake.”.

Let me put you at ease. No one starts out knowing how to be an expert in anything. Just because one has some money, even a lot of money, the process of learning how to give it away thoughtfully, ethically, strategically, wisely, takes time. The vast majority of those with assets to give away took some time to accumulate those assets. And most made plenty of mistakes along the way. Why should we think that the giving gene will just happen?

I typically advise newer funders and philanthropists to take three years of learning. Don’t worry about making mistakes. Don’t worry that your money is being wasted. Don’t assume that you have to know what your mission is, your priorities are, your giving style should be, what kinds of relationship with grantees you need, what are appropriate expectations for outcomes…. Just start.

I also recommend: Don’t make any long-term commitments that create obligation or precedent or expectation. Don’t join any new boards unless you have had a long-time relationship with that group.

Also take that time to learn: learn how to read a 990. Get to know your peers in the funding world. See whether the presentations you receive are sales pitches or genuine and honest articulation of need. [Hint: if a proposal or presentation says “we are the first…” or “we are the only…” or “this project is a guaranteed life changer….”, tread very carefully and slowly.] Learn that NFP/NGO financial statements need to be read differently than for-profit ones. Learn about the decision process of the organization. Get a sense of its culture – toward all of its stakeholders. Learn when a “site visit” gives you information you really need to make a decision, and when it is just because you want to.

One thing you will learn without trying – and it is a lesson every funder learns very quickly. You suddenly become a walking dollar sign, even to long time friends. You already know that you have never been funnier, better looking, wiser, better company. A 24-year-old 3rd Gen of a prominent and very wealthy family once came to me distressed. As soon as she became formally involved with her family foundation, all of her long time personal relationships changed. She wasn’t just wealthy any longer; she was now the source of funds for all sorts of things. She discovered, as we all do, that every time you walk into a room, someone has a project to pitch.

During this learning period, learn how not to become cynical. Or to indulge in your newfound power. After all, by definition, there are more requests than anyone can fund, so we say “no” much more than can ever say “yes.” And most of those needs are genuine. It isn’t easy – either socially or philanthropically.

To return to our starting point: one learns how to fail and how to succeed. If only we could always be right… but after all, by definition, we are funding the future and that is never guaranteed. We learn that even “evidence based” data might be based on insufficient longitudinal questions. This has nothing to do with how much money you have. Simply look at the 9 figure “errors” by the Gates Foundation or the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, to take only some famous recent ones – and I assure you they had the best minds and experts available to them. If you are unwilling to fail, your successes will rarely do more than sustain the status quo.

It is also important to look carefully at the successes as well. Would they be applicable in other settings? Was it all based on a wonderful charismatic leader whose attention span is limited? Are there underlying issues that were overlooked or ignored or even hidden?

Looking at the long term, which experiences were gratifying? At the end of those three years of learning, it is the time to step back to look at all of your philanthropic experiences over that time. Now is the time to see what worked – for you. Which experiences disappointed.? Please note, this process is not about the successes and failures of your giving, but about how you felt about what you did. This is the time to revisit your risk tolerance, your decision making, your preferred relationship with grantees and colleagues, your focus and your priorities.

Which brings us back to the beginning. The overwhelming majority of us are not in the financial league of a Gates or Ford or Rockefeller or the Giving Pledge folks. Yet we can make a difference with whatever resources we have. And that includes even those of us who want to address the systemic issues of which I have been writing about recently.

After all, big picture challenges still must be solved on the local level. If one wants to eradicate malaria, someone must provide netting on the ground. If one wants to eliminate homelessness, someone has to work with many, many individuals to help them establish some stability. If one wants to improve literacy, there are millions of young, and not so young who must be taught – one person at a time.

Once upon a time, most people followed the progression of philanthropy from “compassion” to “strategy” – the traditional “give a fish” vs “teach to fish” metaphor. Only in recent years have many philanthropists learned that the next stage is to address the “systemic”. But In recent years, there are also many who want to start with the “systemic” wanting to use vast resources to address the big picture problems. What they learn, often in a way that can surprise them, is that making sure that those people have that food – fish or otherwise – is the true measure of their success. They learn the importance of the “compassion” stage. Only by thinking “small” can they truly implement the systemic changes they want to make, and that we all need.

Those of us with fewer resources at our disposal can teach a thing or two.

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