Two new books look at grantmaking practice and urge innovation in the post-COVID world of philanthropy. Both provide a window into the thinking and activism of a new generation of grantmakers and investors.
Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control, by Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey. Published independently; 2021; 246 pp; ISBN HB 9780578858616
Modern Grantmaking: A Guide for Funders Who Believe Better Is Possible, by Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg. Modern Grantmaking; 2021; 330 pp; ISBN 9781838487904
Has generational change finally come for philanthropy? Or, putting it another way, has philanthropy come to a time of reckoning that may lead to significant reform in the field? Yes, answer two new books about the practices of grantmaking and social investing. The books are among the first to emerge for philanthropic practitioners under the world-shaking influence of the pandemic, which has broken long-standing assumptions, biases, and behaviours in grantmaking philanthropy. And both provide a window into the thinking and activism of a new generation of grantmakers and investors.
Skeptics would point out that grantmaking foundations are not known for moving quickly or living on the “edge.” The practices of institutional grantmaking have been remarkably slow to evolve. Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg, the authors of Modern Grantmaking and former senior staff members at the UK National Lottery Community Fund, describe the grantmaking field as made up of “dedicated employees trapped within creaking systems and outdated conventions.” They note the continuing lack of professional development in grantmaking that is all too obvious even in a maturing philanthropic sector.
Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey, American social sector strategists and the authors of Letting Go, comment that the larger institutional foundations, which are pacesetters for the field in the United States, are slower to respond to trends and can be skeptical of major structural innovations. Nevertheless, both sets of authors are hopeful that grantmaking can and will evolve more rapidly in the 2020s, driven by internal and external forces for change, such as staff demand for better tools and community expectations for greater engagement. Indeed, Bull and Steinberg dedicate their book to the “reformers” in the field, while Wrobel and Massey dedicate theirs to the “ones letting go and the ones stepping up.”
Both books focus on the processes of grantmaking, with Bull and Steinberg taking a horizontal end-to-end view of the process, while Wrobel and Massey drill down using the lens of a participatory approach.
Both books focus on the processes of grantmaking, with Bull and Steinberg taking a horizontal end-to-end view of the process, examining it at all stages, while Wrobel and Massey drill down using the lens of a participatory approach. Distilling it to its essentials, Wrobel and Massey characterize grantmaking as “problem-solving.” At its most basic, according to these authors, grantmaking has three key decision points: What is our view of the problem we want to solve? How do we find ideas to solve the problem? How do we make decisions about who to fund? Wrobel and Massey argue that any funder at each of these decision points can “move up the ladder of participation by intentionally and meaningfully bringing in stakeholders from the community.”
Letting Go is an advocacy book with a clear, singular, and urgent message: decision-making power in philanthropy and finance must begin to shift toward marginalized communities. Wrobel and Massey make the case for participatory funding as an approach on two grounds: it is more effective because it brings lived community expertise into funding decisions, and it is more equitable because it “gives smaller organizations more of a shot [at getting funded] by neutralizing the advantage of money and connection … it democratizes access to the skills needed to raise money from funders, breaking down false barriers of language and culture … [and] it fundamentally changes power dynamics by changing the role of funders from givers and deciders to supporters and connectors.” Addressing risk-averse or uneasy board and staff members and social impact investors, Wrobel and Massey profile organizations using or testing participatory approaches and sketch out how to proactively involve community stakeholders.
For some foundations, the work can begin through regranting to public funds or foundations run by community stakeholders. In Canada, a new example of this would be the Indigenous Peoples Resilience Fund, administered by and for Indigenous communities with funds provided by non-Indigenous foundations. Another way to do it is through donor collaborations. A Canadian example is the Northern Manitoba Food, Culture, and Community Collaborative, in which non-Indigenous foundations work together with Indigenous and northern community members. The new Foundation for Black Communities is a third example.
Does participatory grantmaking have a chance of taking over more traditional top-down or arm’s-length grantmaking? The jury is still out. There are dilemmas for many foundations to work through, including the trade-off between internal flexibility and the external time commitments necessary for collaboration, and between maintaining control (legal or fiduciary accountability) and ceding accountability to non-staff or non-board members. We need more data on the benefits of participatory processes. The Ford Foundation, which has been experimenting with participatory processes, is funding research to answer the question “Does participatory grantmaking lead to better, stronger philanthropic outcomes?” with initial findings expected in 2021. But the fundamental questions raised by Wrobel and Massey around power and legitimacy in philanthropy certainly must be on the table of foundation leaders and boards in the wake of the events of 2020/21.
In the last decade a host of new ideas about how grantmaking should be done differently have been growing up like green shoots through cracks in a pavement. These shoots are now so numerous and so vigorous that the paving slabs of traditional grantmaking practice are threatening to buckle.Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg
Modern Grantmaking is a less polemical book with a wider purpose than Letting Go, yet with no less aspiration for fundamental change in philanthropic practice. Bull and Steinberg are writing for people working in the trenches of grantmaking to give them energy for new ways of thinking and doing. And they are optimistic. “In the last decade,” they say, “a host of new ideas about how grantmaking should be done differently have been growing up like green shoots through cracks in a pavement. These shoots are now so numerous and so vigorous that the paving slabs of traditional grantmaking practice are threatening to buckle.” The book is intended as a guide to reflection on various aspects of a grantmaker’s role, from formulating strategy to managing relationships with grantees, colleagues, and boards, and to developing skills in research, management, and self-development. While it is very practical in tone, the book’s premise is firmly grounded in values.
The authors describe “modern grantmaking” as grantmaking that “embodies the values of humility, equity, evidence, service and diligence,” and they return again and again to these touchstone values, using real-life illustrations and tips from their many interviews with grantmakers. Their reform agenda is evident in their enumeration of these values: it’s to equalize as much as possible the power differential between the funder and the funded. From discussions of funder privilege through to the grantee experience, their focus is on how to mitigate the power inherent in a profession that is most often staffed by white, educated, and better-paid people than the people they are funding.
That said, Modern Grantmaking is not a judgmental exhortation. It’s an accessible guide, written in formats that make it a rapid read, with questions and answers, checklists, discussion guides, and case studies threaded throughout the text. It is also organized in a non-linear way with individual sections that can be read independently of each other. I found two chapters particularly helpful on tasks that all grantmakers encounter at some stage: formulating a strategy and making use of evidence or research. Without jargon or pretension, the authors set out an approach to developing a solid strategy and using data and research that is of immediate value to both large and small funders.
The connecting thread between these two books is their open questioning of the “old power” nature of grantmaking philanthropy. In their 2018 book New Power, Henry Timms and Jeremy Heimans discuss the ways in which technological tools are changing behaviours and mindsets.
They drew a distinction between “old” power (hierarchical, expertise-based, and closed) and “new” power (distributed, crowd-sourced, and open). The generational change they flagged five years ago is gathering steam in the grantmaking world, based on the examples and case studies featured in Letting Go and Modern Grantmaking. The digital platforms and tools described by Timms and Heimans undoubtedly facilitate participatory grantmaking processes, including problem identification, grant selection, program design, evaluation, and feedback.
Any participatory process should be in a constant state of iteration and self-reflection. The process is the point.Ben Wrobel and Meg Massey
The elements added to the philanthropic landscape by the authors of these two new books are the systemic class and race structures that shape the human mindsets and behaviours of philanthropy. They highlight the importance of paying attention to diversity and equity, of thinking about who holds power and who is excluded, of staying humble and building proximity to community. Neither set of authors suggests that the shifts underway are easy or simple. “Any participatory process should be in a constant state of iteration and self-reflection,” conclude Wrobel and Massey. “The process is the point.”
Bull and Steinberg urge would-be grantmaking reformers to ally with each other for reinforcement and mutual support. They also provide a chapter on how to talk about the big questions that all funders should debate from time to time, suggesting that “it is only by making careful, conscious choices … that we, as grantmakers, can unshackle ourselves from the invisible constraints handed down to us as ‘the way it’s always been done.’” Readers of these two stimulating books will already have begun to take steps to do exactly that.
For more on participatory grantmaking, consult the Participatory Grantmakers Community.
For more on trust-based philanthropy, consult the Trust-Based Philanthropy Project.
For more on modern grantmaking, consult Modern Grantmaking.