Is grantmaking getting smarter? According to a survey recently released by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), the answer appears to be ‘not by much’ – or at least not fast enough. Last conducted in 2008, this study of primarily US foundations found that there was little to no change in the degree to which grantmakers incorporated practices deemed important to the success of grantees. The survey will be one of the centrepieces of discussion at this year’s GEO conference being held in Seattle on 12-14 March.
Some of us will take comfort in the fact that the field, represented by the 755 grantmakers who responded to the survey, did not backslide significantly into bad habits. Unrestricted and capacity-building support held steady, and foundations even reduced grant approval times from an average of 90 to 60 days. Multiyear grants, however, took a sharp downward turn over the past three years: close to 30 per cent of funders reported that due to the sour economy and other factors, they had decreased dollars for multiyear support.
While the survey holds some interest as a mirror held up to the nature of US grantmaking, foundation staff might use it most effectively to reflect on their own practices. The survey can help convince trustees who, for example, still object to the idea of making grants for general operating support. When so many grantmakers have adopted the practice, and for so many good reasons, there’s strong motivation for detractors to reexamine the basis of their resistance.
What’s missing from the survey are the robust debates behind the various grantmaking practices probed in the study. These exchanges are common in the GEO community, many of whose members pride themselves on their attention to matters of craft. These debates are rooted in some telling assumptions about the evolving field of philanthropy. First, there’s the assumption that there are better and worse ways of making grants, ranging from the awful to the inspired. Inspired philanthropy, after a hundred years or so of professionalized grantmaking, is coming ever more clearly into view. It can be codified and learned. Second, there is, I believe, a growing sense that the argument for perfecting the craft of grantmaking has a moral as well as a practical dimension. Not only can bad grantmaking practices set back social change efforts, they can also do them irreparable harm.