April 2, 2012

Is Grantmaking Truly Getting Smarter? GEO’s Findings Reveal Some Stagnation, and Some Causes for Hope

By Alison Powell

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations published its survey “Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter?” a few weeks ago. The findings reveal that one answer may be that at the very least, grantmakers are getting faster: GEO saw that on average donors decreased their decision time on grants by 30 days, a reduction of more than 30%. On many other measures, however, grantmakers reported little to no movement.

From GEO’s view, one way donors demonstrate smarter grantmaking is by helping their grantees reach their full potential. Funding organizations for multiple years, supporting organizations with much-needed general operating support, and funding organizations to build their capacity (say to install a new IT system or to build a three-year strategy) are a few indicators that show this smarter grantmaking is occurring, according to GEO. The study didn’t find that funders moved too far on these indicators. For example, compared with GEO's last survey, around the same proportion of grantmakers offer general operating support (80% in 2008, 83% in 2011), and the same proportion of grantmakers offer capacity building grants (65%) as in 2008.
  There are other noteworthy statistics, for example, how at least some of this lack of progress may have to do with the effects of a down economy. But one thing I found really interesting was discussed in the Key Findings section of the report. GEO’s research determined that “when funders had strategies in place for listening to and learning with grantees, they were more likely to increase” general operating support, multi-year support, and capacity-building support. It’s intuitive—the more you really partner with your grantees, the more you understand what it will take to get the results you both seek, but it’s nice to see this relationship confirmed with data.

A few weeks ago at GEO’s annual conference, a number of Bridgespanners had the pleasure of presenting and leading dialogues. They all reported a lot of engagement on topics like how funders could help grantees get to financial sustainability, what it would take to build a coalition for what works, and how to reduce barriers for government-funded nonprofits. If you’re curious to hear more about any of these sessions, GEO’s conference page lists all the sessions with related materials.

In addition, Beth Kanter hosted a great blog throughout the conference with many sector leaders weighing in along the way—if you’d like to catch up on their musings, click here.

I’ll be curious what the reaction to GEO’s survey is. Do you think people will be frustrated that there hasn’t been more movement towards stronger grantmaking practices, or do you think people will be inspired by the positive findings like the much faster grantmaking timelines?

Alison Powell is Bridgespan’s Philanthropy Knowledge Manager. Follow her on Twitter @abp615.

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