How to Drive Next-Level Grantmaking: Start with Levers, Ripples, and Spheres

PEAK Grantmaking’s work centers on five core principles, each challenging our community of 8,000 philanthropy professionals to critically consider their internal grantmaking processes and perspectives, as a means toward operationalizing equitable grantmaking practices.

Last year, I penned a piece for this series on our Steward Responsively Principle and encouraged readers to fear not the dragons in their grantmaking practices. Fast forward to today, and PEAK is now in the season of its fifth principle: Learn, Share, Evolve. These three simple words each pack their own challenge for a sector that often fails to prioritize learning, where knowledge hoarding is pervasive, and where the pace of change can feel extremely slow. At the heart of this principle, we call on philanthropy practitioners and thought leaders to not only step up their learning practices, but to also commit to building sector-wide knowledge by sharing lessons learned and seeking wisdom from others who are also pursuing change and impact. This is the engine that drives transformation. We must learn and share in order to evolve.

Moving from “Best Practices” to “Next Level”

A term you won’t hear from us is “best practices,” and here’s why. When I hear the term, a thought bubble immediately appears asking, “By whose standards?” There’s a reason PEAK has worked so hard to disrupt this-is-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it thinking. Because someone got to “best” and then stopped pushing for even better. While it’s worth pausing to celebrate and share the milestones you reach, approach the next day—and each day after that—as an opportunity for continuous improvement by asking, “What’s next?”

Evolution is an ongoing practice. Instead of setting your sights on “best practices,” consider instead positioning your organization to be next level. Shift the gaze internally to reflect on both progress made and opportunities ahead. Generate honest feedback loops on what’s working well while also surfacing those practices that no longer serve your efforts. Keep building up and out, going narrow or deep, depending on changing priorities and goals. Striving for next level sparks means embracing opportunities for ongoing growth and challenging both organizations and individuals to never settle. It’s this next-level driver that is pushing PEAK’s own staff and board these days. In the spirit of self-reflection and sharing how we are fueling evolution, here are three ideas to spark forward momentum as a change agent for equitable grantmaking practices.

There Are Many Levers of Change

As philanthropy professionals, we seek mission-aligned organizations that we can invest in with a hope that, over time, those investments will result in positive impacts for those areas we care to influence. A primary lever of change is grantmaking.

PEAK encourages our community members to develop relationships with the nonprofits they support and to prioritize funding the full costs of nonprofit staff first so that the programs they design and implement have the desired impact. Beyond the grant, there are a plethora of levers that philanthropy can access. Consider offering supplies, professional coaching, skills training and resources, technology, leadership, feedback loops, convening space (and snacks), communications tools, writing expertise, fiscal policies, quiet or loud encouragement, and endorsement to other funders—to name just a few options.

There are many levers of change we can access to more fully support nonprofits—if we reject a mindset of scarcity and embrace abundance. Tap into the full set of rich resources available, financial and otherwise. Your grantmaking will always remain critically essential as resources are in short supply to support the long list of problems that the sector seeks to address, but don’t stop there. Go beyond the grant whenever you can. Ask your nonprofit partners what they need most and be responsive to those needs. Evolve from transactional to transformational partnerships whenever possible.

Each Ripple Begins with a Drop

Nonprofit staff work hard to garner trust and show that they’re making an impact. Yet, despite prior investment in their work and many years operating with integrity and transparency, each meeting or invitation to apply for funding can feel like a separate, disjointed transaction. Nonprofits (like PEAK) approach a funder full of hope but often walk away having experienced awkward conversations or clunky and unresponsive technology. Or worse yet, the nonprofit hears nothing from a funder after devoting hours to crafting an application they had been invited to submit.

Does your organization view grantmaking as transactional, or is it the first step toward partnership and transformation? When nonprofits experience mutual excitement and connection around the work from a funder, it’s magic—a ripple of epic proportion that can deepen relationships, build trust, and buoy our journey forward. What ripples does your organization generate with nonprofits after you leave the room?

Be the positive drop that sets a ripple in motion that widens in time, generating ever more positive impact.

You Are at the Center of Your Sphere of Influence

Your first sphere of influence is not your colleagues, your community, or your family. It’s you. And 99 percent of what happens daily is outside of your control. So start within: It is far easier to change yourself than it is to change others.

In our sector, it’s commonplace to witness funders asking others to shift their thinking, tactics, or practices without first doing the same or being transparent about their institution’s journey toward changing practices and perspectives. PEAK calls on funders to be principled in their grantmaking practices and to share how they are learning and shifting over time. We at PEAK are dedicated to openly sharing our own journey as we seek to embrace transformative practices inside our organization and inspire other organizations who are looking to first model change before asking others to take on the task.

Some of the hardest work you’ll undertake has nothing to do with making a grant. It is about focusing first on your own change. Change begins with you. Then, model that change, and be transparent about what worked well and what did not along the way.

Learn. Share. Evolve.

As you settle on which levers of change are most critical for results, ponder your sphere of influence, make ripples, and do so with a spirit of abundance—and not scarcity—as your guide. As a philanthropy professional, you are ideally positioned to help revolutionize this sector. Being at one’s peak as a grantmaker requires us to continuously learn and share as a path toward evolution.

If your organization is ready to prioritize getting to the next level, check out Blackbaud’s webinar, “Unlearning and Learning to Be Next Level.” We dive into more detail about PEAK’s journey through learning as they help the philanthropic sector fully embrace equitable and inclusive practices as essential to operational excellence.

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