The Science of Good Grantmaking

funding capacity building ngos donors sustainability Grantmaking social investment
Tuesday, 23 October, 2012 - 09:49

Good grantmaking is characterised by trust, respect and empowerment, and empowers the grantees to take full ownership and responsibility for a project

How do we ensure empowerment in the grantmaking process, asks Tshikululu Social Investment’s Juliana Thornton

Social investors often have what they may consider to be great, innovative, world-changing ideas about how education programmes should be run, how HIV-testing should be incentivised, how disability should be mainstreamed.

But these ideas, innovative and world-changing as they may seem from the perspective of the grantmaker are still bound by, and rooted in a particular context, which often as grantmakers, is different from the context of the people for whom the grant is intended, in this case usually some of the poorest communities in South Africa.

These ideas, once up against the coal face of development may turn out to be less world-changing and less feasible than we thought.

Good social investment relies on proactive grantees that are given the necessary support to implement their own ideas – ideas that are based on years of experience working and living in diverse communities across the country.

As soon as we impose our ideas for development on our grantees, we automatically disempower them and disregard their own models for change, developed over a number of years in direct response to community needs. In grantmaking circles we often refer to these kinds of grants, where the central idea or model did not originate with the organisation itself, but rather came from the investor, as ‘push grants’ – essentially the idea or model was handed to the grantee instead of originating with the grantee.

In a case study that considered a fund providing grants to approximately 40 organisations per year, we analysed the results of five ‘push grants’ which were made to organisations to run programmes.

Of these five grants, two were for projects never able to be implemented, one project experienced year-long delays in implementation, one failed before the idea was even fully conceptualised and the last was unable to be implemented due to factors outside of the control of the grantee which were not taken into account in the original proposal.

In almost all cases, these challenges could have been avoided if the grantees were given the time, space and resources to come up with an idea themselves, work out the mechanics in detail and then submit a proposal once ready.

Social investors also have a unique birds-eye view of development. Interacting with a range of different projects, we are able to connect the dots between partners who may not otherwise recognise the synergies in their work.

In these cases, introducing an idea or a model to willing partners is slightly different to ‘push grants’ as the idea or programme arises from the recognition that the organisations or partners are already doing good work. It grows out of the existing expertise of the grantees rather than replacing it. In this sense, social investors can play important roles in coordinating programmes, clearing clutter and building innovative programmes.

How do we avoid ‘push grants’? In many ways the principles for good grantmaking are the same as the principles for good management:

  • Empowerment – allow grantees the space and resources to implement their own ideas and to take responsibility for projects. This may involve surrendering some level of control over the process – allow this, and wherever possible insist that the implementing partners come up with the concepts and planning for the project. This is easily done by inviting proposals from implementing partners and insisting that money is not released until a watertight proposal is presented;
  • Trust that your grantees, based on their wealth of experience in the community or sector will know the right path to take;
  • Respect the work that has gone before and the successful projects which the grantee has already implemented, often before the inception of your investment.

Juliana Thornton is Client Relationship Manager at Tshikululu Social Investments. This article first appeared on the Tshikululu Social Investment Website.

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