Why Do We Call Ourselves Grantmakers? - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Why Do We Call Ourselves Grantmakers?

I recently returned to a favorite publication of mine—Small Can Be Effective by Paul Ylvisaker, published first in 1989. I remember thinking it was thoughtful and relevant years ago, and I was particularly taken this time by the discussion of the five roles of small foundations.

One of the things that struck me was the misnomer we use to label ourselves: grantmaker. According to Ylvisaker, grantmaker is only one function within the financial role of foundations. He wisely adds lender, insurer, investor—and 16 other functions within the financial role alone. That left me puzzling over why we place so much emphasis on grantmaking; on the act of writing checks.

There is so much more we can do with our resources.

Someone recently asked me what I did for a living, and I went through my typical spiel of trying to succinctly explain our foundation and my work. As I saw her eyes glaze over, I quickly reverted to my time-tested answer: “We make grants to support good work being done by nonprofit organizations that work with kids and that work on environmental issues.” Then she started nodding and smiling. Although this description works, increasingly I am wondering if, by using the label grantmaker, I am shielding our foundation from some of the other opportunities available to us. Ylvisaker talks about four roles beyond the financial role: catalyst, conceptualizer, critic, and community builder.

It is so much easier to judge our performance by citing the dollar amount of grants we make than to assess our work in areas such as convening or serving as the social conscience on an issue—both functional tools available to small foundations, according to Ylvisaker. I think we also face the occupational hazard of having grantmaking drive us, in part, because it tends to be so deadline driven; it has real people on the other side, waiting for word. One can see why we get caught up in it, and have it become all, or at least most, of what we are.

Although words are just words, I do believe they can be powerful in describing intent. Therefore, I am making a resolution to limit how often and when I use the label grantmaker when describing our foundation. Instead, I’m going to refocus my attention on the other 19 functions that small foundations have to carry out their work in what Ylvisaker describes as “vast room for creativity.”

Exponent Philanthropy member Janis Reischmann is executive director of the Hau’oli Mau Loa Foundation in Honolulu, Hawaii. She was hired as the foundation’s first executive director in April 2008, bringing to the role more than 20 years of working in the nonprofit sector in Hawai‘i.  Her experience with grantmaking foundations includes seeking grants from local as well as national foundations and serving as staff or consultant to Hawai‘i Community Foundation and various family and independent foundations. For 7 years, Janis led a consulting practice, largely in Hawai‘i, that focused primarily on organizational and project development with most of her clients being nonprofit or government agencies.


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