Not Just “Grant” Making

This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Amy Sample Ward. Amy is a Communications and Learning Associate at the Meyer Memorial Trust. She authors MMT’s New Media Blog as well as a personal blog devoted to nonprofit technology.

By Amy Sample Ward

As the holiday season is now in full swing and many organizations are launching online donation campaigns, I have been thinking more and more about how closely my personal views of “giving” have formed my professional ones.

Working in a large private foundation means that I am all too familiar with large amounts of initial inquiries and grant applications flooding in every month.  Previously, I worked in nonprofits, though, and am also very familiar with the kinds of Christmas lists small, grassroots organizations can really think up.

Whenever conversation turns to philanthropy and how we teach philanthropy to our children, as it does often this time of year (especially in the blogosphere, like on Beth’s blog), I chime in with the argument that not all giving equals money and that not all organizations really need money as much as other things.  For example, a domestic violence shelter may have enough funds and in-kind agreements to maintain its kitchen consistently, but doesn’t have enough volunteers to help with tutoring and child care in the evening when dinner is being prepared.  There are many alternatives to donating money, be it time, skills, knowledge, community, or even man power.

So, how does that view of philanthropy in my own life change that of my professional life at a foundation? I don’t think that our responsibility is to just dole out the cash—we have a whole lot more to offer!  As a foundation, we have program officers and other staff with terrific skills and knowledge that range from grant writing and strategic planning to mission and vision planning, technology and communications skills to engagement and outreach tactics.  There are many nonprofits that apply for grants and are declined. They could still desperately need and grow from training or other outreach and support in the other areas I mentioned above.

As grantmakers, we need to accept a broader role than just “grant” makers.  We need to step up to provide knowledge, skills, and resources when it is really in all of our best interests to do so; after all, those nonprofits are fulfilling needed services in our communities and that’s why they applied for the grant in the first place!  Contributing all that we can as an organization is the best way to align with our own missions to serve nonprofits and our communities as best as possible.


  1. Holden says:

    You know your situation better than I do and you may be right, but I think you should be very, very, VERY careful with logic like this, and from your post it does not sound like you are careful enough.

    Here are the issues with what you say, as I see them:

    1. The non-monetary things you describe (labor, expertise, etc.) can very often be bought – and at a level of quality and headache-saving hassle that donated time/services simply can’t compare to. Anecdotally, I believe that most nonprofits have a glut of volunteers (who generally can do very little that’s actually mission critical, no matter how good their intentions – here I am speaking from experience); a glut of advice; and a shortage of money.

    Why do they take so many volunteers, then? Because volunteers often become donors. Bringing me to my second point:

    2. You can’t assume that charities’ reactions to your “help” is genuine at all. My experience is that charities always do everything they can to play nice with their funders – because it strengthens a relationship that may lead to money.

    Basically, you need an incredible level of confidence in your own intelligence to think that your advice/consulting/expertise is consistently as valuable as money to charities – since (a) you don’t know as much about their activities as they do, not even close (b) their receptiveness is not evidence that your advice is valuable.

    Bottom line, you know your funding is valuable; I don’t know how you can assess that your other services are, except perhaps by charging for them and seeing whether the interest is still there.

  2. Thanks, Holden, for the terrific comment!

    To address your points:

    I have experienced all of what you are bringing up, including nonprofits who want to participate in non-grant activities just for building relationships, too many volunteers to actually make efficient use of them, etc. I did not mean to say that a grant is equal in support to other non-grant activities. What I will maintain, though, is that providing monetary grants should not be the ONLY activity of foundations. For example, we have put on a series of free training events this year for nonprofits on Communicating in the Age of New Media. Of course there have been participants who were there only to try to build a relationship with us (despite the fact that no program officers were involved in these events’ facilitation), but, the number of participants there to learn greatly outweighed them. The feedback we have received does point to the value trainings like these have for nonprofits and reaffirms that if staff have experience, skills, or other non-monetary offerings AND the foundation is in a place to facilitate and provide for outreach, it should be incorporated into the general practice of the organization.

    Thanks again for the great comment; I really appreciate it.

  3. Amy,

    Leverage assets. As a consultant to foundations and corporations, I always (OK– more often than not) suggest they leverage their human and financial assets as a part of building capacity for nonprofits. The workshops-classes I conduct for GCN are always packed. One program I developed for a giving circle made it mandatory for participants/grantees to attend 1 per quarter. They came, they learned. All around it works.

    I am not as skeptical about nonprofits intentions to just build relations. Face it – you figure out quickly who the smoozers are and seem to be fewer than those that actually do their job and do it well-with the most sincere intentions.

    You are dead on, and have good ideas. Fly with them. Trust me, no small children will loose lives if some things simply don’t work out.

    Maggie F. Keenan, Ed.D.

  4. The Foundation Center has a really interesting reported called More Than Grantmaking that looks at trends for newer foundations to engage in “direct charitable activities”. Very relevant to this conversation.