Humble grant or strategic philanthropy? Let’s champion ambitious grantmaking



Alison Bukhari

Alison Bukhari

Last week’s panel discussion at the Alliance Breakfast initially positioned ‘strategic philanthropy’ as something different to ‘humble grantmaking’. I suppose the various prefixes like traditional, conventional, reactive, responsive … grantmaking etc didn’t help. But I have to argue that I don’t see strategic philanthropy as an opposing force to grantmaking. I see it as grantmaking PLUS.

The organization I work with, Dasra, champions the grant. So much so that we have moved ever so slightly away from our previous position of dividing our time nearly equally between organizations taking investment capital and organizations taking grants. We are now largely back to our ‘old’ grantmaking. But there is nothing humble about it – we are most certainly what Martin Brookes described as ‘ambitious’ grantmakers.

Not only do I want to champion the grant, but I want to champion the intermediary – the eco-system builder, the organization, like Dasra, that acts as a bridge between grantmaker and grant receiver.  Where there are issues of power, I like to see the intermediary, in this case Dasra, playing a critical role in helping to balance the power.  He with the money does not necessarily hold the majority share of power. Dasra hand-holds the donor, in our case generally a consortium of 10 donors, and persuades them to give a recipient organization unrestricted funding, a cumulative grant of just under £0.5 million.  Given the funding is unrestricted, the trust is placed in the CEO of the recipient organization to operationalize the grant. Where Dasra plays a role is in supporting the organization with management assistance, aligned to the allocation of that funding against an ambitious growth plan. We work closely with the donor to help him or her understand the challenges and to comprehend the impact assessment and ongoing presentation of results; and we unlock the donors’ social and intellectual capital to play a role, where appropriate, in the grantee’s work.

Where I totally agreed with Barry Knight was in his articulation of the error in the champion of catalytic philanthropy, Mark Kramer’s, call to foundations to ‘tear up their grant application forms’.  I relate my concern over this comment to the situation in India. In a country like India that is currently building a philanthropy ecosystem, we have seen first hand the need to champion the grant. And there is no more important time than now.  The Indian government announced last autumn a new bill that mandates that companies over a certain size must allocate 2% of their profit to CSR.  This could apply to c 16,000 companies and unlock $2.9 billion in funding.  If we listen to the narrative that grants are no good, what will happen to this funding? Already many donors in India have an innate mistrust of NGOs. A large and well-established foundation in India came to us the other day and said, ‘we need to learn how to make grants to NGOs.’ In their history to date they had only operated their own programmes; they had never given a grant.

The overwhelming trend in India is for philanthropists and companies to set up their own operational foundations, as they tend not to trust anyone else to spend their money. This leads to duplication, fragmentation and a chronic lack of local philanthropic funding for NGOs the length and breath of the county – and those NGOs are often undertaking the most innovative poverty reduction work. If grants continue to get a bad name, this could lead to those billions of dollars being donated into new operational foundations, lacking in experience, with the potential of accountability being lost, while established, high-potential NGOs miss out on this swathe of funding.

The funding unlocked by the new bill has to benefit the NGO sector. Despite my evangelical support for venture philanthropy and strategic philanthropy and my admiration for the successes of a lot of catalytic philanthropy, the people who know best in India are generally those closest to the problems and their organizations are being starved of funding exactly because of a lack of grantmaking. There are some wonderful companies across India who have the potential to create enormous social change. We need to present to them a vibrant, high-impact non-profit sector and the power of the grant!

Whether it be humble or, like ours, grants that seek to help organizations scale their work 30 to 50 times, let’s not pitch grantmaking against strategic philanthropy. Let’s champion the middle ground, impact-focused grants with an ambition to make a real, measurable difference to those that matter.

Thanks to Alliance for pulling together four great speakers to stimulate this discussion!

For further information and debate on India’s new CSR bill see Dasra’s conference videos online Dasra Philanthropy Week Day One.

Alison Bukhari, director of Business Development and Partnerships at Dasra.

Tagged in: Dasra Grantmaking

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