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Online Event: Modern Grantmaking and friends discuss How to Spend-Down Well

On the evening of 11 December we will be hosting an online event on how spend-down foundations actually function. We’ll be interviewing two fantastic speakers, Emily Bild from GoPhilanthropic and Lynda Mansson, ex CEO of the MAVA Foundation, to share their first-hand experience of starting and ending a spend down process.

Book your free place here.

First, Do No Harm

In lots of jobs the danger of accidentally harming innocent people is drilled into new recruits from the very start. Whether it’s dentistry, driving a truck or building a house, lots of professions spend an awful lot of time both warning their people not to endanger other people, and then training them how to avoid doing so.

But what about grantmaking? Do you remember during your fevered first few weeks of intensive funder training how you were warned how easy it is for grantmakers to hurt the people and organisations they’re trying to help? No? No memory of that?

Well, don’t worry, because you’re not alone. Few new grantmakers get taught this because underpinning too much funding is an unspoken assumption: “Free Money Couldn’t Possibly Hurt Anyone!” 

Now, if you were trained about the dangers of grantmaking at all it is much more likely that you were told how to avoid damage being inflicted upon your own organisation, perhaps by accidentally allowing fraudulent proposals to get funded, or perhaps by attracting the unwanted attention of - shudder - the Charity Commission.

However, and we can’t really communicate this loud or clearly enough - grantmakers absolutely, positively can cause harm.  We do not, by some convenient miracle, have the only powerful job in the world that is incapable of hurting other people. That’s why our matching grantmaking tattoos say “First, Do No Harm”:
Image: Not actually our grantmaking tattoos. Thanks DALL·E 3.

Now, we know that most people reading this newsletter probably already know that grantmakers can make choices that will cause harm to other people. But we also think it’s likely that you will occasionally meet people in your working lives who honestly believe that because we do grantmaking for good moral reasons, that we cannot therefore create any negative side-effects. If you do encounter someone like that, here’s the top three types of harm you need to introduce them to:

1 - Wasting time. It is SO easy for a grantmaker to waste the precious and limited time of a grantseeker or a grantee - we can do this in many different ways. Most notorious is the waste that happens when funders run hopelessly oversubscribed open-funding processes. If you reject 999 grantseekers for every one grant you give it is entirely likely that your overall impact on the world will be a net negative. But there’s so many other fun ways you can waste other people's time too! For example you can ask for a monitoring report you have no time to read: more common than most of us like to admit. Or you can run events that meet your needs, but not the needs of your grantees, so they sit there politely twiddling their thumbs (see this previous newsletter for tips on avoiding this trap).
2 - Knocking grantees off mission. Most good nonprofits have clear missions: they know what they’re trying to achieve. As a grantmaker it’s very easy to meet an impressive nonprofit team and think “Ooh I’d love to give these people money, so they can deliver what I think they should deliver”. And now you’ve just taken an organisation that was set up to achieve one thing and you’ve twisted it towards doing something else - something it isn’t as committed to, and that it may be much worse at doing. Bravo!

3 - Funding stuff that produces harmful side-effects. Sometimes when a nonprofit runs a programme, it not only doesn’t produce the intended outcomes, but it can actually make things worse. Perhaps the most famous of all examples in grantmaking is ‘Scared Straight’, a programme focused on frightening teenagers into avoiding a life of crime. After becoming hugely fashionable due to a 1978 TV documentary, it was later shown to have “increase[d] delinquency relative to doing nothing at all to similar youths” (source). 

We are sure that our readers could tell us a dozen other types of harm that can result as side-effects of grantmaking practices and choices, but the main moral is this: call your local tattoo artist and get your own “First, Do No Harm” grantmaking tattoo booked in, pronto.

New Modern Grantmaking Trainings

Our late November ‘Fundamentals of Modern Grantmaking’ training has now sold out (woohoo!) so we’ve scheduled a next one for 27th March 2024. We love running these: it’s brilliant to watch people from really different funders meet and learn together.

We’re also running another iteration of ‘Improving Grantseeker Experiences’ workshop, for people focused on making their funding more accessible and better for everyone. That’s on 20th March 2024. Book now!

Latest Reading - Modern Grantmaking recommends 
  • Philanthropy’s response to the Israel-Hamas War. The Council on Foundations has been keeping an updated page on both ways to donate, and with links to articles on how philanthropy is responding.
  • A group of ten mostly large US funders are contributing more than $200 million in funding toward public interest efforts “to mitigate AI harms and promote responsible use and innovation”. More info here
  • Civic Power Fund and The Hour Is Late joined forces to analyse social justice grant-making in the UK in 2021-22. In Funding Justice 2, they looked at 18,816 grants from 60 funders, worth over £950m. Key findings include: of all the grants analysed, 27% were focussed on social justice work. This was just 5.7% of foundation giving in the UK that year.
  • Interested in learning more about the #ShiftThePower funding reform movement? Check out this video of a recent webinar with key players who revisit the roots of the movement and talk about what it means now.
  • At last a table-top game for grantmakers! ClimateWorks and Forum for the Future invite you to step into the future and play an immersive game entitled “Shocks to the System: Fast Forward to 2028”. This game will test your ability to make decisions around critical issues as they pertain to climate funding.

Micro-survey: has the funder you work for become more or less restrictive since the pandemic?

If your funding organisation has become more (or less) restrictive in its grantmaking since the pandemic faded, what do you think has driven that change?

Whisper your experiences to us, and we’ll share them anonymously, soon.

How about a new job or trustee role in grantmaking?Want to see your job ad in next month’s newsletter? Ping us! We now only share job ads that #ShowTheSalary

Grantmaking ‘joke’ of the month

Q. Why were the gunpowder plotters rubbish fundraisers? 
A. Because they only ever asked for a penny for the guy.

Got any terrible or actually funny grantmaking jokes to share?......tell us. 

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Who writes this newsletter?
We are Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg - we run Modern Grantmaking. We do consulting and training specifically for funders, and wrote a book on how to be a modern grantmaker, too. We love chatting to anyone with any interesting news in grantmaking-land, so please do get in touch.
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