Friday, March 27, 2009

Foundation Thoughts

"There is no one tried-and-true way of doing effective grantmaking, although various advocates would like us to think so. Mistakes occur no matter what the approach, especially when an organization follows an approach rigidly."

Robert Giloth and Susan Gewirtz, "Philanthropy and Mistakes," The Foundation Review, Winter 2009

This quotation is from an article I recently published with a colleague that sums up my thinking about mistakes and failures -- at least as of a few months ago. A couple of thoughts along the way stand out for me. First, defining and distinquishing success and failure is more difficult than you might think.Sometimes it's a matter of perspective. Second, mistakes are not necessarily the same for the philanthropic investor and the nonprofit designer and implementer. The danger, of course, is that foundations attribute their failures to the nonprofit sector and not to their own grantmaking assumptions and constraints.

On a related subject, discussing capacity building is a sure way to unravel assumptions and raise all the questions that you hoped you had already answered. One contrast of approaches is whether capacity building should focus on individual organizations or on fields -- collections of diverse organizations or parts of organizations devoted to spreading specific type of program element or innovation. These approaches represent very different ways of getting to scale. Most attention has focused on the former. Building fields requires grantmakers to realize that they are a part of fields -- but not necessarily the leaders of the field.

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