Getting Involved Beyond Grants

by Andy Carroll | May 14, 2014

Money has long been considered the currency of philanthropy. Dollars are central to our practices, identity, and public perception. Philanthropists are known as “grantmakers” or “funders,” and impact is thought of in terms of financing power. But some foundations and donors are quietly pushing the boundaries of philanthropic practice, with a type of philanthropy that hasn’t even been named yet.

We are learning something exciting: By combining grants with research, technical assistance, convening, connecting, advocacy, mobilization, and other kinds of direct action, philanthropists are changing, and sometimes completely transforming, their philanthropy.

Funders with few or no staff are especially skilled at this kind of philanthropy—intimately connected to their towns, regions, and partners. With less bureaucracy, and having close ties to those they serve, these funders find it natural to leverage their dollars with knowledge, expertise, connections, and their unique perspective across the community.

How do some funders come to this transition? What paved the way for the shift? What benefits do they see? Read on to learn more.

Types of Nongrant Strategies

Funders use their many nondollar assets to do the following:

  • Research and investigate an issue to discover causes, barriers to progress, promising solutions, funding streams, political and social dynamics, and other useful information that can reveal opportunities.
  • Refer nonprofits to local or national resources on management, fundraising, or technology.
  • Introduce promising or high-performing grantees to carefully selected funders who may share an interest in particular work.
  • Provide direct advice and consulting to grantseekers and grantees to develop their management and build their capacity in areas such as finance and accounting, technology, fundraising, and communications.
  • Develop training programs for nonprofits.
  • Convene community members for a variety of purposes, including raising awareness of urgent issues, sharing information, identifying gaps, brainstorming solutions, coordinating action, and building coalitions.
  • Raise awareness of a problem or solution, or advocate for action, through meetings, emails, online articles, letters to the editor, and networking with community leaders.

The Power of Nongrant Work

We have learned that nongrant work has several major impacts:

  • Providing consulting to a small nonprofit on how to develop its management structure, for example, or enhancing its fundraising or technology systems, can add tremendous value to grants that build capacity.
  • Embarking on a more intentional process of learning, scanning, or research accelerates and deepens a funder’s understanding of an issue or community. So does providing technical assistance to nonprofits, which offers insight into ways to build capacity and effectiveness. Such knowledge helps funders identify gaps, see important needs that span multiple organizations, and find opportunities for impact.
  • Convening, for example, creates opportunities for nonprofit staff, citizens, and agencies from different sectors to exchange information and develop ideas for new approaches and collaborations.
  • Nongrant work is an investment of the donor’s, trustee’s, or staff’s time and talent, drawing the funder into greater involvement with an agency, a group of nonprofits, or a community. Engagement opens doors to more learning, more opportunities, and more impact. Respectful engagement can also build trusting relationships. Notes Joyce Heptner of the Ausherman Family Foundation (, “Trust is a keystone in making impact in a community.”
  • Funders often convene or offer consulting in response to needs or outright requests by nonprofit organizations. Being responsive has value in itself, and it also trains funders to be more attuned to needs and more outwarddirected, which opens doors to impact.
  • Because nongrant work drives learning, nurtures engagement, and nurtures responsiveness, it can change how funders work, and their mindsets. Several funders said their learning and relationships changed the game.

Notes Lori Kuhn of Morgan Family Foundation in Ohio (, “When we supported an ad-hoc group of citizens who were interested in creating a community theatre, the process that was set into motion changed the goal. They went from talking about a building to talking about an entire vision for arts and culture for our community.”

Observes Brian Rogers of the Rogers Family Foundation in California, "Writing checks only gets you to a certain level. We have reached a higher level of investment, as a result of our convening, the training we do, and mobilizing people. We’re now deeply involved, and committed for the long term, working in tandem with partners. Our nongrant work fundamentally changed the way we as a foundation choose to work."

On-Ramps and Catalysts

None of the funders we interviewed indicated that nongrant work was something they planned to do in advance, as part of some new strategic direction, for example. Rather, they started doing one thing, usually in response to an idea, immediate need, or request. Taking a first step yielded results and revealed opportunities, which led to more activities.

What impelled funders to take that first step? There are a number of qualities, skills, and mindsets that draw funders into this work.

An impulse to engage with people—This mindset was common to every funder’s evolution into nongrant work. They experienced a desire to engage; have conversations with nonprofits, community agencies, and citizens; and reach beyond paperbased transactions.

Gary Castagnola of the Ellen and Clarence Peterson Foundation in California talks about being directed outward. Celeste Land of the Land Family Foundation ( is a “people person” who tries to have conversations with almost every small nonprofit her foundation considers for a grant. “Many times, the environmental organizations will tell me, ‘You’re the first real, in-the-flesh foundation person I’ve actually talked with,’” she says.

Juanita Garcia of the GenCorp Foundation in California notes that her company’s foundation sees its mission as being a community partner. Providing money is only one of a half-dozen ways the foundation helps nonprofits. Before the foundation offers services, Juanita has to know what organizations really need, and this requires engagement.

A powerful on-ramp, then, is engaging with people and listening. “What holds us back,” says Brian Rogers, “is fear—fear of getting close to grantees. Once you get over that fear, you realize people are happy to have other resources and tools, and escape their silos.”

Seeing across the community—Few institutions in our society have the freedom and broad perspective of foundations and donors. Funders who do nongrant work are ones who value this broad perspective, and put it to use. They value the knowledge they gather from interacting with many organizations, and the freedom to identify common needs and trends. As Rogers reflects, “Most organizations see only a piece of the picture; funders see the whole.”

How do funders put this unique perspective to use? Read on.

Recognizing nonprofits can be isolated and need help—Highly engaged funders gather a tremendous amount of knowledge and insight about the challenges of nonprofits in their communities.

Their deep understanding of nonprofits’ needs impels these funders to want to help organizations become stronger. “There are no perfect nonprofits, as there are no perfect foundations,” reflects Land. Many small nonprofits, she observes, grapple with governance and financial management. She spends a lot of time talking with nonprofits about how they could build capacity through training or education.

The isolation of nonprofit organizations is also of great concern to funders who listen and engage regularly. “The nonprofit community is fragmented. Everyone is operating in a bubble,” says Land. “Nonprofits don’t know one another,” says Dee Ann Harris of the Leightman Maxey Foundation. And they don’t know the resources available—resources that could be so valuable to them.”

Realizing the extent of this isolation is among the most powerful things that drives funders to get involved in nongrant work. Joyce Heptner began to convene the executive directors of nonprofits in the Frederick, Maryland, area after the foundation’s co-founder and trustee heard an executive remark, at a social gathering, that she didn’t know any of the other nonprofit executives in the area. And participants of those convenings are valuing the information sharing. Says Heptner, “I can see the light bulbs going off.”

Recognizing your nondollar assets and resources— Funders are also influenced to take first steps into nongrant work by recognizing the value of their skills and experience. Celeste Land and members of her family, including siblings, spouses, and adult children, have worked with nonprofit organizations as staff, volunteers, and board members. In their role as funders, the family offers that wealth of experience in the form of advice, consulting, and perspective to small nonprofits.

Gary Castagnola was a financial planner, and his experience engaging clients in conversations about their goals was useful in helping new grassroots organizations develop their goals, vision, and strategy. For example, Gary spent hours counseling a pastor who wanted to establish a social services organization in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles. Gary’s advice helped the pastor develop a framework for his vision, which enabled him to obtain certification and support from the county.

As Juanita Garcia learned about the needs of nonprofits around Sacramento, she began to draw on her company’s diverse assets. She has connected nonprofits with several of the company’s business units to provide pro-bono services; donated surplus computer equipment to schools and partnered with another company to install learning software; and linked a nature center with the company’s environmental and health organization to improve safety and accessibility. These services enhance the impact of her grantmaking, and also establish stronger relationships between the company and the community.

Brian Rogers encourages his staff to contribute their talents in the community. The foundation seeks to catalyze city-wide change in Oakland to improve the quality of public school education. It has set the bold goal of raising reading proficiency of third graders from 38% to 85% by 2020. As part of its strategy, Brian’s staff have provided technology training to teachers, written proposals for schools for major grants, and served on boards of nonprofit partners. He even has sent a staff person to “infiltrate the unified school district technology office to help build their capacity.” Says Rogers, “We, as foundations, hire really talented people. Why keep their skills bottled up?”

Getting Started

It is perhaps most surprising that funders seldom embark upon nongrant work intentionally. We believe this is because they do a lot of listening first and are drawn into closer relationships; only at that point, after they learn and make sense of needs, do they humbly and carefully offer more than grants.

Getting started in nongrant work, then, is a kind of journey that begins with listening. As conversations with stakeholders unfold and ideas emerge, grants and direct action combine to create a very different kind of philanthropy.

To open paths for your giving, consider these ideas:

  • Reach out and talk with your grantees, and with other organizations working in your mission area, to learn more about their work and their challenges.
  • Step back and take stock of what you have learned over the years. Recognize that funders accumulate a huge amount of knowledge about nonprofits and communities. What patterns and trends have you identified? Are there gaps and opportunities?
  • How might you fill those gaps using all the resources at your disposal? For a moment, let go of your identity as a grantmaker. What must happen to meet an important need, and how might you help to bring that about—in any way or form?
  • Catalogue your assets—your skills, your experience, your knowledge, and any services you could provide. How might those be useful to the goal?

Consider this advice from Lori Kuhn, “Nongrant work is most effective when well-informed, and a dialogue with nonprofits and other stakeholders should continue while embarking on it to maximize collective learning, course correction, and impact.”

“Nonprofits don’t know one another, and consequently don’t know the resources available—resources that could be so valuable to them.”

How did Dee Ann Harris of Leightman Maxey Foundation find herself involved in nongrant work, and loving it?

Several years ago, Dee Ann began representing the foundation at a regional nonprofit conference and participating in a “funder–nonprofit speed meet session.” As she talked with nonprofit representatives working in her foundation’s mission area, she realized that many were not aware of other nonprofits doing similar work, or of useful resources they could tap into—often free of charge.

Even in her region in Oregon, not a major metropolitan area, groups didn’t know one another.

She proposed to the foundation’s Grants Advisory Committee the idea of convening nonprofits providing nutrition education (the foundation’s interest area) and government agencies and businesses. The committee was game. Asked why, she reflects, “My committee members are open to new ideas and very thoughtful. It just made sense to them. Also, since they would be attending, it would provide them with the opportunity to survey the landscape as a whole. They saw it as a way to play the valuable role of connector, and to uncover new ways to be effective.”

Dee Ann worked with a United Way colleague to invite people they knew in the field of nutrition education, and encourage those people to invite others. The convenings were wildly popular. “They really loved it,” Dee Ann said. “Participants valued finding out what other groups do, the challenges they have, and gaps they see. They began making connections, and coming up with new ideas. Numerous projects got their start as a result of the convenings.”

With the help of a facilitator provided by the foundation, the group developed a strategic road map that includes key strategies and tactics for future endeavors.

After 3 years organizing the convenings, Dee Ann, a staff of one, was ready to phase out, but the group expressed a desire to continue. She was willing to invest the time, because she and her committee saw the value, and no one else was centrally positioned to bring the field together.

Exponent Philanthropy is deeply grateful to these funders for sharing their experience and insights: Gary Castagnola, Ellen and Clarence Peterson Foundation, California; Juanita Garcia, GenCorp Foundation, Inc., California; Dee Ann Harris, Leightman Maxey Foundation, Oregon; Joyce Heptner, Ausherman Family Foundation, Maryland; Lori Kuhn, Morgan Family Foundation, Ohio; Celeste Land, Land Family Foundation, Virginia; and Brian Rogers, Rogers Family Foundation, California.

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