Increasingly, the practice of grantmaking as a tool for bringing about social change has fallen out of favour, replaced by newer, snappier-sounding forms of philanthropy. In laying out their wares, venture philanthropy, strategic philanthropy, philanthrocapitalism and, most recently, ‘catalytic philanthropy’ have all made claims for greater effectiveness.
Barry Knight & Jenny Hodgson
This change has been largely driven by outsiders, for example by business people entering the sector or by consultants. However, there has also been introspection within established grantmaking platforms and networks about the significance and purpose of grantmaking. For example, a keynote speaker at the 2013 conference of the African Grantmakers Network worried that grantmaking – or giving away money – understated what African philanthropies were really about. Globally, WINGS (Worldwide Initiatives for GrantmakerSupport) has been reflecting on whether its emphasis on grantmaking as a development tool is still relevant.
Is ‘traditional’ philanthropy, with its emphasis on grantmaking, being left out in the cold?
Complex solutions for complex problems
The complexities of bringing about social change require complex solutions and multiple strategies – of that there is no doubt. This special feature does not make claims that grantmaking is the strategy, the truth. Rather, it seeks to reinstate grantmaking as a highly strategic development tool – an art, even – which can play a central role in the pursuit of social change, not least because in the end good grantmaking means letting go, devolving power and putting resources in the hands of people and institutions to make their own decisions and shape their own futures.
It is clear, however, that in recent years the tide has been turning against grantmaking as more and more foundations adopt the top-down strategies of strategic and catalytic philanthropy and philanthrocapitalism. As an illustration of this, a 2013 report on catalytic philanthropy by Danish foundation Realdania draws heavily on a three-part hierarchy devised by FSG. In the table, the common metaphor of fishing is used, with traditional philanthropy and grantmaking equivalent to giving a hungry man a fish, strategic philanthropy equivalent to teaching a man to fish, and catalytic philanthropy equivalent to reforming the whole fishing industry and improving the lives of poor people as a result.
The unsurprising conclusion from the FSG table is that traditional philanthropy and grantmaking won’t achieve social change. In effect, ‘grantmaking’ has been equated with scattergun charity with no interest in long-term results.
Tables of this kind oversimplify the real world. Sharp divisions tend to produce false dichotomies. We do not wish to simply defend traditional grantmaking or to trash other models of philanthropy. Instead, what we want to do is to examine what grantmaking has to offer in the context of a range of other strategies.
Grantmaking as a strategic tool
We see grantmaking as a philosophy, a creative and strategic tool, a mechanism for building voice, agency and trust that in turn deliver social change. The articles in this special feature describe grantmaking for social change in all its diversity – big grants, small grants, long-term and short-term. Despite their differences and nuances, what they all have in common is the basic fact that at some point money moves from one organization to another – a grant is made.
At its most literal, grantmaking means ‘the practice of giving money’, ‘non-repayable funds disbursed by one party to a recipient’, or ‘the discretionary awarding of funds’.
However, the simple catch-all category of ‘grantmaking’ is perhaps reductionist and unhelpful. There are many different types of grants. For example, we need to distinguish between reactive grants where applicants bid into open programmes;responsive grants where funder and funded develop a programme together based on the ideas of the grant recipient; proactive grants where the funder takes the lead and finds the grantee to implement its ideas; and contracts – beyond the scope of this special feature – where the funder tenders for organizations to fulfil specified work.
Moreover, we have to take account of context. One type of intervention is not going to work across the entire world. In developing and emerging markets, where the field of organized philanthropy is often new, levels of public trust are low (particularly towards non-profits), and civil society is weak, grantmaking can play an essential role in building trust and demonstrating transparency and good governance. There is a similar need for a highly local and culturally sensitive type of grantmaking in marginalized and excluded communities in the Global North.
A changing context for philanthropy
Why are models like philanthrocapitalism and strategic or catalytic philanthropy gaining the upper hand? The answer lies partly in the rapidly changing context of the past quarter of a century. We live in a world where constant technological innovation has become the norm, so that what is new is always better than what has gone before. The world of spin and instant media means that people put enormous effort into communications to get their message across to global audiences. At the same time, there have been dramatic changes in the balance of economic power. We have seen the rise of multinational corporations, a reduced role for the state in many places, and increased use of private/public partnerships, along with raised expectations of philanthropy. The philanthropic context is changing too, with the emergence of a new class of mega-rich individuals who establish enormous foundations shaped by the type of business model that made them wealthy in the first place.
However, intractable problems remain. We face a world where inequality is rising nearly everywhere, environmental degradation and climate change threaten our planet, and whole areas of the globe are locked in seemingly endless violent conflict. Despite our best efforts and considerable investments of money, both through official development assistance and philanthropy, deep-seated problems seem entrenched.
Does philanthropy need to raise its game?
This calls for new models and a sense that philanthropy needs to raise its game. Such a perspective has resulted in a variety of initiatives from the philanthropic sector designed to deepen the effectiveness of philanthropy. In 2000, the four-year International Network on Strategic Philanthropy was set up through the Bertelsmann Foundation. Since then, we have seen the rise of ‘philanthrocapitalism’, designed to use business methods to achieve social ends. This has been followed by other approaches, each with slightly different names, but with similar ‘strategic’ approaches, including ‘venture philanthropy’, philanthrocapitalism, ‘collective impact’ and ‘catalytic philanthropy’.
What all of these approaches share – and their similarities outweigh their differences – is the top-down, planned use of resources from a variety of actors being brought to bear on a serious problem with the goal of bringing about large-scale social change that can be measured. Paul Brest, recently retired from the Hewlett Foundation, defines strategic philanthropy as:
‘… the setting of clear goals, developing sound evidence-based strategies for achieving them, measuring progress along the way to achieving them, and determining whether you were actually successful in reaching the goals.’ 
The leitmotif here is to use business methods to control the change and to measure the outcome. The role of non-profit organizations or wider civil society is downplayed and treated at best as one of the means of delivering change, but not as a source of the ideas behind the change. At the root of this is the belief that philanthropy knows best.
Pablo Eisenberg has called this ‘a dangerous shift of the balance of power in the non-profit world’, noting that 60 per cent of US foundations will not receive unsolicited proposals. This will enable donors to ‘call all the shots and exclude non-profits with great new ideas’.
It is not just outsiders to philanthropy like Pablo Eisenberg that are making this point. Peter Buffett, son of Warren Buffett, has noted that ‘philanthropy has become the “it” vehicle to level the playing field’, but the main effect of this is ‘to enable the rich to sleep better at night’. He suggests that the answer lies in listening to those who have the answers and might create the conditions for the changes we need. The role of philanthropy should be to produce the risk capital for those ideas.
Voices from the field
Other voices – from the grassroots – echo these concerns. The articles in this special feature display opinions from a range of grantees and foundation and community foundation leaders who stress the importance of grantmaking and disavow the well-resourced messages of ‘strategic’ and ‘catalytic’ philanthropy.
The lesson of history would appear to support them. Much of the really important social change in the past century has been driven not by philanthropy but by grassroots organizing at the local level. Think of civil rights or feminism. In the webinar discussion, Kathleen Cravero, president of the Oak Foundation, believes that social change comes from ‘strong, community-based civil society organizations’. In the same discussion, Rana Kotan, from the Sabanci Foundation, points out that advocacy to change public policy to address child marriage in Turkey resulted from a grant application from a local women’s group.
Moreover, failure to engage with the grassroots may cause failure. A 2013 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy argues that elite-driven, top-down approaches adopted by funders in the battle against climate change in the US, for example, have not achieved their goals because of a failure to involve grassroots communities directly affected by environmental harms which had the energy and resolve to take up the issues.
Contributors to this special feature also emphasize the importance of grants as a flexible and powerful tool that can play a pivotal role in bringing about social change by allowing funders to engage with and spread risks across a range of ‘untested’ groups to take the lead on those issues that affect them the most, such as the case of grassroots activism around mining land rights supported by the Fund for Global Human Rights in Guatemala.
Clearly, the current shift by more and more large foundations away from the ‘front lines’ of more traditional, open-ended styles of grantmaking, often in favour of ‘big bet’ grants to a smaller number of larger, more established organizations, has implications for grassroots organizations. It cuts them out of the loop.
Grantmaking in emerging contexts
In developing and emerging contexts, dismissing grantmaking has even more significant implications. Here, philanthropic sectors are still young or emerging, and grantmaking is new or not well established. It is in these contexts that grantmaking has the greatest potential to play a role in bringing about real change that goes far beyond the transactional nature of cheque-writing. In Russia, for example, grantmaking, although now well established thanks to the efforts of philanthropy infrastructure organizations like the Russian Donors Forum and CAF Russia, dates back only 20 years. In Sub-Saharan Africa, too, the cohort of social justice grantmakers, such as the African Women’s Development Fund and TrustAfrica, are at an early stage in their existence. While the East Africa Association of Grantmakers can claim a decade of existence, its continent-wide sister, the African Grantmakers Network, was established only in 2009. Further north, the Arab Foundations Forum is a mere seven years old.
Why does grantmaking matter so much in these contexts? In the Global North, where functioning legal systems and a level of public awareness of the role of non-profits can be assumed, the role of grants might be less significant. But in contexts where trust is low, where people simply don’t believe in institutions, grants play an enormously significant role in building trust and modelling transparency and democratic good governance. As Filiz Bikmen observes, in Turkey grantmaking is so much more than the transfer of funds; it is all about increasing the capacities of civil society, fostering connections between different groups – an investment in democratization. Similarly in Africa, for so long dependent on donor aid and only just now beginning to experience the reality of a developed and indigenous African philanthropy sector, grantmaking becomes an essential tool in fostering new and more horizontal and transparent forms of mutual accountability between donors and recipients; it constitutes part of a paradigm shift towards a form of development that is driven and resourced by Africans.
The ‘retreat’ from traditional grantmaking in parts of the world where it never got established in the first place is a particular concern in terms of its effects on strengthening democratic culture and fostering social innovation, as argued by Andre Degenszajn, discussing the situation in Brazil. It also represents a harsh blow to those who have sought to introduce grantmaking – in doing so, choosing the road less followed – a task which can be fraught with challenges.
For emerging public philanthropic institutions such as community foundations, which are both fund seekers and grantmakers, it can be an uphill task to convince potential donors to support their grantmaking programmes when their instincts are to want the community foundations to deliver programmes themselves rather than to grant funds on. Donor education becomes essential to demonstrate how giving to and through local grantmakers can offer a way for donors to spread their philanthropic resources across a broader cross-section of grassroots groups and civil society organizations and, by doing so, to spread their risks too. Giving to local grantmakers can also play an important role in creating strong, well-managed local groups and serve as a way to build important bridges between donors and beneficiaries.
Where grantmaking is so new, its easy rejection is of great concern if it encourages corporate or business-oriented donors, impressed by management school wisdom, to believe that operating their own programmes is a preferable option to partnering with civil society organizations. It serves to justify their resistance to working with non-profits, and allows them to look no further than themselves, rather than seeking to build partnerships with, and harness the expertise and experience of, others engaged in social development.
Beware all models
So far in this article, we have argued that thoughtful grantmaking can create positive social change. This view is reinforced by stories of successful grants made by grantmakers in different countries covering diverse issues ranging from same-sex partnerships in Ireland through to drones in the war zones of the Middle East, education in Brazil, micro-micro lending in America and many more.
These examples seem to counter the idea that strategic or catalytic philanthropy or philanthrocapitalism is superior to traditional philanthropy.
Does this imply that we should abandon trying to build models in philanthropy? Not necessarily, but it does mean that we need a better understanding of what different models offer. Given that the process of social change is so complex, it is unlikely that the simple three-fold FSG hierarchy will be sufficient.
A more nuanced approach can be obtained by looking at how foundations themselves actually perceive change. We have reanalysed material from a survey of 80 European foundations conducted by Selim Iltus and Barry Knight in preparation for a session at the 2013 European Foundation Centre conference called ‘From Good to Great Philanthropy’.
Questions were based on an extensive literature review on ‘what makes organizations great’ conducted by Bettina Windau from the Bertelsmann Stiftung. Based on her literature review, we identified 28 items that could transform ‘good’ work in a foundation into ‘great’ work. Examples included: ‘a first-class theory of change’, ‘a highly focused programme’, ‘the right grantees’, ‘remaining positive in the face of setbacks’ and ‘good knowledge management’.
Using a statistical technique called factor analysis, we found seven archetypes perceived by foundations as the route to greatness that foundations aspire to.
Seven routes to greatness
1 Passionate rationalists These foundations use a first-class theory of change. They are dedicated in what they do and always measure their impact. They are also good organizers, valuing collective impact with collaborating agencies. They are good at leveraging resources and, when necessary, find new ways of tackling old problems.
2 Flexible risk-takers These foundations are always optimistic and hopeful about their results. They like to take risks and have a flexible approach. Valuing learning, if things do not go well, they change course and explore new options.
3. People-centred For these organizations, it is all about people. This means the right leadership, good people in the right positions and the right allies. They also have a strong understanding of the political context.
4 Short-term pragmatists They value short-term gains. They also aspire to spectacular outcomes. They do not always plan in detail but they always have clear short-term plans for how to proceed and achieve results.
5 Focused professionals These foundations have highly focused programmes. They concentrate on a few areas and have clear objectives. They clearly define their role from the beginning and stick to it. They also stick with their grantees and make long-term commitments.
6 Gamblers These foundations believe in luck and not necessarily in careful planning. They also go after simple ideas. They believe any project can turn out to be a success or failure.
7 Big investors These believe that for foundations to be successful, they need to make big investments. They select their grantees very carefully, because they also think that the right grantee is the key. They tend to avoid social justice investments.
The first type of foundation – the passionate rationalists – looks very like ‘catalytic philanthropy’. However, the model allows for six other types. What is striking is that all of the types use grants as part of the strategy, though the role of grants is different in each case.
These results suggest that there is a variety of ways that foundations aspire to achieve greatness. Moreover, since there is a variety of ways to achieve greatness, there needs to be a variety of forms of evaluation, risk assessment, and other management techniques. These findings relate only to European foundations and it is likely that we would add to the picture if we incorporated foundations from other parts of the world.
This special feature suggests that we should be wary of coming in with a simple slogan or matrix to guide our actions. The world is more complicated than this allows for and multidimensional approaches are called for. Above all, we should run a mile from management books or consultancy advice that promote a single, simple answer – otherwise we will fall prey to unevaluated fashion. Indeed, as Andrew Kingman observes in his excellent article, which seeks to delink the idea of catalytic philanthropy as a breakthrough model from the sound development principles that lie behind it, the interventions of development and philanthropy have often been unambitious in both their framing and their delivery. When it comes to social change, we have to embrace complexity, and that means many different tools, approaches and processes which, as Kingman illustrates in his case study from Mozambique, can be driven by a ‘thoughtful NGO or a good grantmaker’ as much as by an ‘inspired philanthropist’.
The impressive consistency in the views of the range of grantmakers writing in this special feature suggests that grantmaking should advance, not retreat. It is clear from the contributions that follow that practitioners see grantmaking playing a central role in fostering creativity, promoting democratic participation, changing power dynamics and reducing poverty and inequality. Philanthropy has many other important tools besides grantmaking, to be sure, but the evidence suggests that grantmaking is central.
We hope this special feature will bring the debate to a higher level so that we do not all rush to the next simple solution that tells us that there is a ‘right way’, when in fact there are ‘right ways’.
This article was first published in the March 2014 edition of Alliance magazine which had a special feature on Grantmaking for Social Change
1 Paul Brest: www.nonprofitquarterly.org/philanthropy/22745-bill-schambra-s-problem-with-evidence-based-philanthropy.html
2 Pablo Eisenberg: http://philanthropy.com/article/Strategic-Philanthropy-/141263
3 Peter Buffett: www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/opinion/the-charitable-industrial-complex.html?_r=0
4 Real Results: Why strategic philanthropy is social justice philanthropy, Niki Jagpal and Kevin Laskowski, NCRP, 2013
Jenny Hodgson is executive director of the Global Fund for Community Foundations
Barry Knight is secretary of CENTRIS
Their joint publications include More than the Poor Cousin: The emergence of community foundations as a new development paradigm and A Different Kind of Wealth: Mapping a baseline of African community foundations.