The Most Important Lesson I’ve Learned in 25 Years of Grantmaking

It’s a strange job…giving away money. Sure, it sounds simple. People come to funders for support, we decide if the idea fits with our foundation’s mission, we vet it, perhaps we write a recommendation for our board, and our trustees then make a determination. Pretty straightforward. Pretty clear. Pretty formulaic — at least on the surface.

But, in my twenty-five years in philanthropy, I’ve realized that writing checks is a small part of the job. We can give grantees so much more than financial support. In fact, it is our responsibility to do so. People put their life energy into creative ways to better the world — how do we, as funders, support them beyond dollars given?

Because the Brainerd Foundation will close its doors in another five years, I‘ve been reflecting a lot on my time as a grantmaker, as well as my earlier days as a grantee. I find myself asking: What is the most important thing I’ve learned?

Surprisingly, it is something I gleaned from my very first day on the job in philanthropy. Hal­ Harvey, the CEO of the Energy Foundation and my first boss, sat me down and said,

When you listen to a potential grantee, remember they’re putting themselves out there; try to imagine their heart on the table in front of you.

At the Brainerd Foundation, we try (hopefully with success) to imagine those hearts beating (thump-thump). And, of course, our hearts beat, too (thump-thump), as we listen to, learn from, perhaps guide, but always honor the people before us. Who knows whether each person or organization will make a meaningful contribution toward improving people’s lives or protecting the environment…or when they might achieve success — now or well into the future.

Indeed one’s job as a program officer is to focus on the many potential grantees coming through the door, pitching concepts they believe best-address issues of our day. Those who pitch us do not make salaries like those in the corporate sector or in more secure government positions; they have chosen nonprofit careers because they are passionate about making a difference, and they arrive at our door step to see if a creative concept can take shape, with our funding to catapult it forward.

Of course, funders can’t underwrite all ideas; and of course part of the job is to vet ideas carefully and say no when there is not a fit between the foundation’s goals and the proposed project. But whether we are able to fund a program or not, we should always stay humble and try to be “movement generous.” We can help introduce an organization to another funder who is addressing a similar challenge; we can share things we’ve learned from other grantees along the way; or we can help connect the dots between two like-minded efforts. And in so doing, we can honor not only those organizations we plan to fund, but also those we can’t.

So why is this worth sharing? Because to make the most of our foundation’s sunset, our board decided that one of our final initiatives is to support, encourage, and engage new donors in conservation philanthropy. Our main investment, thus far, has been through Social Venture Partners’ Northwest Conservation Philanthropy Fellowship, a program for donors who want to learn how to be strategic, smart and, yes, humble in their giving practice.

In addition to efforts like this, we also want to have open, transparent conversations about our foundation’s work and the lessons we’ve learned along the way. So, let us hear from you, whether you are a funder or a nonprofit colleague. What makes for a good partnership with a funder? Can you share a positive experience or lesson that might inform or inspire others who want to engage their money and time to make this world a better place?