The Secret Sauce: Grantmaking

Give Better. Give Together.
A 7-Part Series on Launching and Sustaining a Successful Jewish Giving Circle

This article is Part 4 in a series about giving circles. Giving circles, groups who pool donations and decide together which causes to support, are a powerful tool for providing anyone – at any age, in any place, at any giving level – with access to an exciting, intentional giving experience. Giving circle members learn and do something about the issues that mean the most to them within their community of friends, family, fellow program alumni – anyone.

As part of our effort to expand and strengthen giving circles in the Jewish community, Amplifier: The Jewish Giving Circle Movement is proud to present this seven-part series to help you start and sustain a giving circle inspired by Jewish values. This series draws upon Amplifier’s Resource Library and the experiences of dozens of giving circles already in the Amplifier network.

Part 4: The Secret Sauce: Grantmaking
By Felicia Herman and Jackie Fishman, Natan

In the first three posts in this series, we looked at how giving circles are a critical tool for empowering givers and thereby catalyzing more giving; we introduced the many things other than money that giving circles are also about – including engagement, education, and community-building; and we walked through some of the initial steps to get a giving circle off the ground.

Now we turn to the “secret sauce” of the giving circle experience: the grantmaking. This is the moment when members will gain an incomparable education in both philanthropy and the issues being addressed by the circle’s grantmaking.

And while this process is of course similar to serving on a foundation board, or Federation or community foundation allocations committee, giving circles open up these types of experiences to anyone, at any giving level.

So how do you do it well? We offer a few pointers below, along with a selection of Amplifier resources to make good grantmaking as simple as possible:

  • The Resource Library, especially the Grantmaking section, written by Amplifier and some of our amazing partners.
  • Searchable, public profiles of hundreds of great nonprofits and initiatives. If you’re a registered giving circle user on Amplifier, you’ll also be able to see the Common Grant.
  • Applications that many of these organizations have submitted.
  • The ability to invite organizations/initiatives to apply for your grants through Grant Opportunities.
  • A searchable directory of other giving circles so you can reach out to those with similar interests, giving levels, and/or membership sizes to learn how they handle their grantmaking (and everything else!).
  • Amplifier staff and our network of coaches and mentors who can help guide you in this process.

Decide What Matters Most

Grant Opportunities ListGiving circles offer the opportunity to experience “strategic philanthropy” – meaning that a giving circle is proactive (rather than reactive) in its giving. A circle starts by asking some of the questions below, and then develops a funding strategy to match its goals:

  • What kind of change are we trying to achieve through our giving circle?
  • What are the most effective and efficient ways to accomplish our goals?
  • Where are the bright spots (best organizations/programs/people) in the landscape working on these issues?
  • What else do we need to learn to make smart decisions?
  • What impact do we want our grantmaking to have on the issues and organizations we care most about? (And perhaps: How will we measure that impact?)
  • How much time do circle members want to spend on the review process? Should we have a one-stage or multi-stage application process?
  • Will our call for proposals be public or private?

Our one-stop-shop introduction to giving circles, Giving Circle Essentials, breaks the grant process down into 9 steps, and other Amplifier resources help you think through questions like whether your circle should support general operating expenses or only specific programs, whether you should give multi-year grants or one-year grants, whether and how to conduct site visits, how to say yes and no to applicants, etc.

Make as much of the timeline and process known to members and applicants up front so they know what to expect and when. Giving Circle Essentials and the case studies on the Amplifier site also offer models of how different giving circles answer many of these questions at the end of Section 7.

9 Steps of GrantmakingMap Your Assets

Through a humble and realistic mapping of your giving circle members’ assets, you may realize that you can bring many different types of resources to the organizations your circle wants to support. Money, social capital (connections to people and to networks), and expertise can all be valuable to grant applicants. For example, circles where the members bring skills that are relevant to their grantee organizations often couple financial support with pro bono consulting.

Mapping your assets can also come in handy even when your circle decides not to support a particular organization. Could you make introductions for the organization to other potential donors, partners or volunteers? Is there non-financial support your circle could provide? When you’re saying no to an applicant, the ability to steer the conversation in this direction makes both sides feel better and can often provide real value to the organization – sometimes even more than your grant would have.

Partnership, Not Power Trip

The funder-grantee relationship is an important one, and one that is often imbued with inherent power imbalances. One side has the money, the other side needs the money. Too much empowerment on the funder side can lead to power trips – a sense that the funders know better than the organizations on the ground.

Ideally, however, the relationship should feel much more like a partnership. As our wise friends at the Lippman Kanfer Family Foundation have put it:

“It is important to recognize that donors and nonprofits have an interdependent relationship – nonprofits cannot do their work with the resources donors provide and donors cannot affect positive change in the areas they care about without nonprofits to do the day-in and day-out work in the field. Approach nonprofits with respect for their role in this partnership.”

Before you start down your grantmaking path, think about the kind of relationships you want to have with organizations who receive your grants, your expectations, and the criteria you plan to use to build those relationships. Launch your grantmaking process with the kavanah – intention – of building a respectful, mutually beneficial partnership. For example, we love this text from the Avot d’Rabbi Natan, a collection of sayings and stories written around the time of the Talmud:

“Greet every person with a pleasant countenance.” [Pirkei Avot 1:15] What does this mean? It teaches us that even if a person gives someone the most precious gifts in the world but his face is gloomy, then the Torah considers it as if he gave nothing.

But one who greets his friend with a pleasant countenance is considered to have given the best gifts in the world, even if he did not actually give any gifts at all.

Ask Great Questions

The questions your circle asks of applicants should, obviously, reflect your members’ interests, priorities, and the particular lenses they bring to their giving. Grantmaking is like matchmaking or applying to college: an applicant may be objectively exceptional, but if they don’t meet your subjective interests and needs, then it’s not a good fit.

Some circles dive deep into the issues the applicants are addressing; others focus intensely on metrics and outcomes; others might orient their giving around meeting the needs of a particular organizational stage of life. Some of the standard questions you might ask include:

  1. Does the applicant address a clearly identified and compelling need?
  2. Is the applicant’s program model innovative and/or proven? (Which does your circle prefer?)
  3. Does the applicant’s leadership (staff and board) seem visionary, and do their backgrounds, qualifications, and/or experience seem suited to the task at hand?
  4. Does the applicant have the capacity to implement their plans, with appropriate staff leadership, qualified advisors, and sound financial management?
  5. Does the applicant have potential for short-term and long-term impact? Does it have clear and measurable goals, and clear metrics to measure its impact and reach?
  6. Does the budget seem reasonable?
  7. Who else is supporting this organization/initiative – and how will your circle’s support fit into this mix?

Rightsize Your Expectations

Be aware of and intentional about all of the things your circle is asking of members, applicants, and grant recipients. Be realistic about how much time you’re asking from everyone involved in the process, and about how much your grant money can achieve. How much time can members commit to the process – and how should your application process reflect that? How much time are you asking from organizations to apply for a grant – and is the amount you’re offering commensurate with the amount of work that goes into the grant application? And finally: are you expecting specific results from your grant – and are those results achievable within the grant period?

Experiment & Have Fun

Successful giving circles evolve organically over time, reflecting their members’ interests, the needs of the field(s) they support, and in response to great ideas and questions that emerge over time. There’s no right answer in grantmaking and there’s always a period of trial and error when you first start out with your strategy. Smart circles will reflect on their work cycle after cycle and tweak the process, strategy, and focus to respond to their learnings.

And last but not least: remember that grantmaking in a giving circle is a lot of fun, and the work you are doing is important both to your members and your grant recipients. Celebrate the end of your cycle with a party, perhaps inviting your grant recipients to join you.

Up Next: Putting the “Jewish” in Jewish Giving Circles