Building Granting Success on Five Key Principles

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By Laura Fish

I work for an organization that supports and builds the community in many different ways. With each activity or role, we do our best to ensure that our donor dollars are spent with the greatest impact. As a funder, whether through one of multiple granting envelopes or through our annual allocations process for affiliated agencies, we aim to find the right combination of support while allowing room for innovation. This is especially true in our granting processes, where we distribute relatively small amounts of money to a variety of front-line organizations and program providers. We want to ask enough of our grantees to ensure that our funds are used with impact and at the same time, we want to give the wonderful, creative people working on the front lines the opportunity to learn, grow and implement their expertise.

Finding the right recipe for success in granting is a challenge, but as a result of our commitment to the following five principles, we have made significant strides over the past few years.

  1. Clear purpose. As is the case in almost any instance, more clarity brings more impact. As a funder, we cannot ask for clarity from potential grantees if we do not have it ourselves. A call for proposals that asks potential recipients to identify how they ‘support the vulnerable’ will provide less impact than one that asks recipients to identify how they will help a particular population, or meet a specific need. This fits squarely within the guidelines published by Philanthropic Foundations Canada in 2012 (“Good grantmaking: A guide for Canadian foundations”) and is also reflected in the call for proposals of many major private and corporate foundations (See, for one example, the W.K. Kellog Foundation website.
  2. Strong Process. One of the volunteer leaders I have had the pleasure of working with has taught me that ‘process will protect you.’ While this was said in an altogether different context, it is equally relevant when building a granting process. The application process, from the call for proposals to the funding application to the response, must support effective decision making. The call for proposals should include the mission of the granting program, the parameters for the grant, the timeline and the details regarding communication. While that may seem obvious, all too frequently a call for proposals is missing one of these critical pieces of information, leading to ambivalent criteria and frustration when a proposal is not successful. Similarly, the grant application should have clear questions focused on the purpose of the grant and, perhaps most importantly, ask only for information that is relevant. By setting up a transparent process, the grantor gets the information it needs to make objective decisions and is therefore more likely to make the right decision – one that will ensure money is spent with sufficient impact.
  3. Accountability. Too often grantors’ processes do not clarify expectations from the outset, leading to missed opportunities and misspent funds. In order to protect against this, each grant we give is now accompanied by a funding agreement, setting out clear expectations and measurements for both parties. In the case of small grants to volunteer run grassroots organizations, this is may be as simple as requiring output reporting and site visits. However, it can easily be scaled for larger grants and larger grantees to include outcome measurement and evaluation. The key to using this tool successfully, in our experience, is working with grantors to ensure the agreement reflects their expectations and commitment as your partner.
  4. Relationships are paramount. When I first moved to the nonprofit sector, I was slightly horrified when told that a senior communal professional from one of our front-line partners was cooling his heels in our reception area waiting to pick up a cheque. We now ensure that cheque delivery is treated as part of ongoing dialogue with grantees. This may seem like a small change, but it reflects a deeper shift in our practice, recognizing that without mutual respect it is impossible to have the more difficult discussions that go with true partnership. Tom Tierney, founder of Bridgespan Consulting, and author of numerous strategy books, put it very well : “Given the inherent power imbalance between donor and grantee, it is difficult for donors to create any semblance of a level playing field, and to get grantees to ‘come clean’ about what’s truly needed to achieve their goals.” (“How to Strengthen the Donor-Grantee Relationship: A Roadmap to Collaboration”, interview by Rahim Kanani,, December 4, 2011).
  5. Follow up, follow up, follow up. While this may seem trite, it is all too easy for funders to limit contact with grant recipients to RFP related matters, especially when granting is only one of an organization’s many activities. Impact takes time and hard work, and in order to ensure that the money invested is having impact, grantors need to make site visits, follow up discussions, reporting, and ongoing support for grantors part of their granting process. It is only by formally introducing these steps into our cycle that we gained a clear understanding of what grantors need to succeed.

My own experience has taught me that the principles set out here are relevant regardless of the size of the grant or the relationship with the grantor. With clarity and commitment, the grantor can help ensure that allocated dollars, regardless of quantum, will have an impact. Even better – because of these steps, and the improvement in our own granting process, we are better placed to identify what grantors need from us, aside from more funds, and to deliver it – whether by convening likeminded professionals, providing professional development, or advising on governance matters. These extras are what ultimately will help ensure that we are investing our donor dollars with impact because they will help strengthen the organizations on the front lines, thereby better serving our community.

Laura Fish, LL.B./B.C.L., is the Chief Strategy and Planning Officer at Federation CJA in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Laura can be reached at