It’s surprisingly hard to be a by-the-book grantmaker because being an imperfect person gets in the way. When I depend too much on my own gut instincts, give in to obligations of friendship, guilt, or a sense of compassion, or feel sure that success is just a matter of working harder and harder, I’m unlikely to make the best decisions about strategies or grants. But those are, of course, very common sentiments among humans. Which is why it sometimes feels like the more human I am, the less good at grantmaking I can be.
I know that sounds harsh. Let me explain.
At the Hewlett Foundation, we design and implement philanthropic strategies that are intended to make the greatest positive difference for each dollar granted—a high bar. We value long-term relationships with high-performing grantees insofar as their work is aligned with our strategies. But we’re supposed to make clear-eyed, rational choices about changing or ending relationships if the evidence tells us a different approach is likely to produce better outcomes. We build strategies around logic; portfolios around grantee organizations’ capacities. The calculus of grantmaking, at least as practiced here, is mostly a left-brain exercise.
But, being people, we naturally have a hard time paying more attention to objective information, accumulated evidence, and coherent theory than to our hunches and hopes. It’s hard to say no to friends, and sometimes it’s equally hard to feel good about recommending a grant to an organization led by someone we don’t much care for—even if the organization itself has much to offer. We may even find ourselves a little bored, sometimes, with the long-term, steady partners and have more fun thinking about all the new projects we could support if those same resources were uncommitted. And maybe most challenging of all, as people who in our past lives have worked intensely and dug deep into details, it’s disconcerting to realize that as funders we often do more for grantees by getting out of the way. It’s tempting to be part of the action, not just watching from the sidelines as the real work gets done.
To help us stay upright in the tug-o-war between heart and head, we have some tools and techniques. These include a strategy process, designed by our Effective Philanthropy Group, that asks fundamental questions and requires us to articulate assumptions underlying our theories of change. It also establishes expectations about external evaluations that will give us information about shortcomings we might otherwise be blind to. For the grant-by-grant decision-making, we have a practice of sharing proposals with colleagues for an independent view, and of having open discussions about whether a new idea genuinely adds value or is just novelty for its own sake. Feedback from our biannual grantee perception survey, administered by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, helps remind us how much organizations we support appreciate the latitude we try to give them to carry out their work as they see fit. And, quite frankly, a heavy load of grantmaking provides its own form of discipline: we just don’t have time to get overly involved in the day-to-day work of grantees.
Our practices are designed to help us fight off favoritism, faddishness and (one hopes) foolish infatuation with our own ideas. Fortunately, though, they don’t squeeze out all the space for being a human. What I see in my colleagues, in fact, is that some of their very best grant strategies leave room for inspiration, creativity, and serendipity; their most fruitful relationships with grantees are built on trust; and they do their work each day with passion and humor. As it turns out, the best grantmakers are people, with all the imperfections and contradictions that implies. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.