In This Section
Most community foundations operate a
competitive grantmaking program that is
responsive to their community—meaning foundations
make grants in response to requests received
from those seeking grants. At times, however, you
may ask: Is this approach the most effective use of
our philanthropic dollars?
Some community foundations believe the
answer is no. They spend time debating where and
how their grant dollars can make the most difference,
and if you asked 10 different community foundations
this question, you would get 10 different
answers on which approach works best.
There are many different strategies when it
comes to grantmaking, and it’s difficult to know
which one will be the most effective.
It helps to think of grantmaking strategies
along a continuum and to choose different
approaches at different times, depending on the
results you want to achieve. This resource will present
some of the most common grantmaking strategies—
what they are, how they are used, and what
questions you and your colleagues want answered.
When it comes to grantmaking strategies, there are
five common models. A number of community
foundations employ these strategies—some
simultaneously—to achieve multiple goals. The
models listed below are not mutually exclusive but
offer grantmakers a continuum of choices:
Model 1 Responsive grantmaking involves providing
grants to accommodate requests from nonprofits
for programs that fall within a community
foundation’s mission and guidelines; responsive
grantmaking means reacting to the needs of the local community. A responsive foundation
is primarily concerned with today’s needs and
the different ways it can support and meet
those needs. The foundation waits for proposals
and is less likely to initiate new programs,
instead preferring to be completely receptive to
nonprofits that contact the foundation.
Example: Many community foundations
offer nonprofit organizations an opportunity to
submit a funding request through a community-wide process. Applications may cover a
broad spectrum of issues and are reviewed on a
Model 2 Strategic grantmaking is a broad umbrella term
for a foundation that directs grants to address
specific community needs with a defined
impact in mind. A strategic foundation isn’t
limited to one grantmaking model. In fact, it
may engage in many approaches—proactive,
initiative, collaborative, and even responsive
grantmaking can be considered strategic—as
long as these approaches work toward creating
a planned result. The community foundation’s
board shapes the grantmaking program around
the change or benefit the board hopes to
accomplish, rather than make grants randomly.
Example: A community foundation takes a
look at the most pressing needs in its community
and discusses how its grantmaking can
bring about positive change. The board and
staff plan and establish goals for the foundation’s
funding programs, the types of grants they will<
make, and the outcomes they seek.
Model 3 Proactive grantmaking involves identifying
organizations or programs that target specific
issues that foundations are interested in and
want to fund over a three-to-five-year time period. To solicit organizations, foundations
will either issue a request for proposal (RFP) or
contact the organization directly. Grantmakers
who follow this model are usually interested in
systems change, policy, and/or policy development
Example: A community foundation learns
that adult literacy rates in its region have fallen
below the national average. It targets three
organizations in the community that work in
this area and awards them grants with specific
outcomes in mind.
Model 4 Initiative grantmaking involves launching a
specific grantmaking or community leadership
effort—a call for foundations to assume a leadership
role with a focus on new ideas or what
“could be.” Initiative grantmaking goes one step
beyond proactive grantmaking. This approach
may involve convening or collaborating with
additional funders, community partners, and/or key stakeholders—investing significant
money and time, including staff and volunteer resources, to address a specific issue. The
emphasis is usually on problem solving and
establishing achievable outcomes to demonstrate
a clear return on investment for donors
and the community.
Example: A community foundation wants to
decrease the homeless rates in its region. It
brings together organizations working in this
area—experts on homelessness—and other
funders to discuss the need and possible ways
to help. Based on a productive meeting, the
foundation initiates a collaborative funding
effort with specific outcomes.
Model 5 Collaborative grantmaking involves working
with other funders on specific areas of interest
that all agree to mutually support. This method
may involve either making grants from a fund
established at the community foundation to
which a variety of funders contribute or bringing
together a group of funders on a project
or issue. It could also involve other funders supplementing the awards made by the community
Example: A group of funders finds it has a
similar interest in combating HIV/AIDS. The
funders draft an RFP and then jointly review
the grant proposals, make recommendations,
and fund those organizations that they agree on.
The grantmaking models listed here are just that—
models. Some community foundations choose a
middle ground, while others take a variety of
approaches for different circumstances. As you consider
what your foundation is doing today and what
it hopes to do in the future, remember this: There is
not a right or wrong answer.
Frequently Asked Questions
On Focusing Grants
“We are preparing to do a community needs
assessment based on focus groups and interviews
with community leaders. The needs uncovered will
in part determine how a percentage of our grants
will be directed.”
- Denise K. Spencer, President and CEO
Community Foundation of the Lowcountry
How do we solve how to
focus our grantmaking?
There are a number of methods that can be used to
determine the needs in a community and how to
prioritize among them. This involves scanning the
community to gain a greater understanding of the
community’s needs, opportunities, and resources. Below are some of the most common methods:
Community needs assessment is a strategic scan of
the community to identify the gaps in services and
resources, and prioritize those needs. This approach
may involve conducting site visits, meetings, surveys,
and research. Some community foundations hire
outside surveyors to do the needs assessment, as it
can require a lot of staff time and resources. Others
rely on community assessments that have been
conducted by other organizations.
- Community report card identifies specific
indicators of community need, tracks changes
in those indicators over time, and highlights
trends that are positive as well as areas of concern.
See A Summary of The Boston’s Indicator
Report 2004–2006 [pdf] and the 2006 Jackson
Community Report Card [pdf].
- Focus groups and listening sessions occur
when a community foundation invites a group
of people to a session to glean information and
get their perceptions about a specific issue.
Rather than define one area of discussion,
foundations can also hold listening sessions for
community members to speak openly. Focus
groups and listening sessions can be held separately
or as part of a larger needs-assessment
- Commission Research by working with local college or university research departments or by hiring outside experts to conduct research on a specific community need or opportunity.
- Attend meetings and look to existing collaborative
organizations, advisory committees, or
working groups to learn about different views
on community needs. A lot of information can
be learned just by being involved with your
community—whether in a professional
capacity or a personal capacity.
- Read the newspaper to learn about recurring
issues. Survey the local papers and identify
potential roles in which a community foundation
might help. This is a simple and costeffective
way to continually scan the community.
- Talk with other funders and ask your colleagues
about the gaps they see in funding and
if there are potential areas where you might
Idea: Once you determine the foundation’s major
areas of focus, prioritize them to decide what percentage of your total grantmaking dollars will be allotted to each area.
What selection criteria should we
consider for long-termproactive grants?
The selection criteria will vary depending on a community
foundation’s mission and goals, as well as the
specific proactive initiative. However, for long-term
proactive grants, some community foundations look
for organizations or programs that:
- are not already being addressed or addressed
- are appropriate in scale and scope, and can be
accomplished in a realistic, finite time frame
- can make a huge difference
- will result in a visible and measurable impact
On Initiative Grantmaking
“We try our best to bring the ‘experts’ together to
promote statewide collaborative community initiatives.
We do this by hosting multiple conferences
and workshops across the state. These public
forums usually revolve around a topic that has
already been identified through a community
assessment or by local nonprofits.”
- Samin Dadelahi, Senior Program Officer,
Wyoming Community Foundation
What should we think about when
deciding to becomemore proactive?
Realizing that it’s a long-term commitment. Before
engaging in proactive or initiative grantmaking, be
sure you have:
- the organizational capacity to see it through
- the commitment of your board and staff
- the know-how to measure success
As any proactive grantmaker will tell you—if you
want to see results, you must be willing to stick with
your strategy for a minimum of three to five years.
There’s something else to consider when
choosing to become proactive—cost. Ask yourself
the following questions:
- How much of our unrestricted dollars will go
toward proactive grantmaking?
- Are we prepared to go three to five years on the
- What kind of costs will we incur to train the
community foundation staff?”
- Finally, consider how proactive grantmaking
affects the nonprofit community. If your foundation has been practicing responsive grantmaking for years, will a shift to proactive grantmaking leave any other organizations you fund in the lurch? And if you do fund a grantee long term, what is your exit strategy for gradually removing them from the grant later?
When should our foundation
take on a leadership initiative?
Before stepping into a leadership role, be clear on
what it will mean for your foundation. Take the time
- determine whether the work is consistent with
- research the issue at hand
- assess what kinds of roles the community
foundation might play
- determine the level of commitment from board
- determine if there is another organization
already doing similar work
- explore potential partnerships
- determine the risks of doing the work vs. not
doing the work
- determine how much it will cost
- consider how doing the work will affect the
community foundation’s image
How do we decide when to
take risks in grantmaking?
The best advice: Look before you leap; but don’t
limit yourself. First, determine what risk means to
your foundation. It could be considered risky if:
- funds are not used as intended
- the impact you expect will not be achieved
- the activity causes more harm than good
- the grant or program brings negative PR
To make your decision (or help board members
make theirs), weigh the risks against the potential
benefits. Ask yourself: What would happen if we
didn’t fund this organization/program? Is it more
risky to invest in this project or not to invest in the
Before awarding a grant to a new or unproven
program, you might consider the following:
- Has the applicant identified a target population?
- Is the need legitimate?
- Are there other organizations in the community carrying out the same or a similar project?
- Is there research that shows the proposed
project has been successful in other places?
- Are there adequate and trained personnel to
carry out the project?
- Does the organization demonstrate the ability
to raise enough money to complete and sustain
- Does the organization have the capacity to
undertake the project?
- Does the community foundation feel confident
in the organization?
- Keep in mind that risky grants may require
more mentoring and monitoring from community
foundation staff. Be prepared to make
changes along the way. Also, make sure you
have an exit strategy—it’s your way out if
things go bad.
Idea: Ask your board members to estimate the percentage
of discretionary funds they would be willing
to apply to risky grants. You may be surprised by
On Taking Risks
“We always tell our grants committee: We need to
make some high-risk grants all of the time, or we
aren’t doing our job—especially if the potential
impact is great or if there isn’t much work being
done in that area. Because they are high risk and
could have a higher failure rate, we don’t want to
overcommit to these projects either. If the grantee asks for high dollars and the risk is high, we might
suggest the grantee bite off a smaller chunk so that
we can get to know them and they can build
capacity in a little safer way.”
- Ann Van Tassel, Vice President, Finance,
Community Foundation Muskegon County
How can we involve donors in grantmaking?
There are many ways to involve both current and
potential donors in grantmaking, no matter the
approach. Below are some ideas:
- Brief donors on areas of community need, both
in person and in printed materials (newsletters,
bulletins, fund statements, and your website).
- Invite donors to serve on foundation advisory
committees or a special grantmaking project.
- Invite donors to foundation and/or community
meetings, site visits, and grantee presentations.
- Give donors the opportunity to learn about and
become involved in community issues.
- Know your donors—determine and track their
interests over time so that you can bring a
specific opportunity to a donor who may be
- What decisions have we already made in our
- What is the rationale for those decisions?
- What new choices should we consider?
- How often should the board revisit the foundation’s
grantmaking approaches to determine
whether they continue to serve the organization’s
mission and goals?
- How are we going to determine the opportunities
for the greatest grantmaking impact?
- What expectations and outcomes will we attach
to our funding?
- Do our grantmaking outcomes meet our goals
as a foundation?
- How can we determine the impact of our
“Community Catalyst: How Community Foundations Are Acting as Agents for Local Change.” This paper [pdf ] presents the experiences,
successes, failures, and lessons from the
work of several community foundations. The
James Irvine Foundation, January 2003.
EyesWide Open: DecidingWhen to Launch a
Community Initiative. This guide gives community foundations helpful information on what due diligence
should come before launching a community
initiative. The third in a series, the paper comes
from the experience and evaluation of the James
Irvine Foundation’s Community Foundations
Initiative. The James Irvine Foundation, July 2003.
“Making a Difference: A community impact
series.” This free online series offer workbook
exercises and resources to increase the impact of
community leadership and grantmaking. The six
sessions include tools on assessing community
needs and opportunities, creating and executing
strategies, and communicating the results of your
work. Center for Community Foundation
Excellence, Council on Foundations.
Scanning the Landscape: Finding Out What’s
Going On In Your Field. Download the guide to
learn how to get started with a scan, explore benefits
and methods of using a scan, understand how
to ensure diverse input into the scan, and discover
ways a scan can contribute to the field and inform
people of your objectives. Grantcraft.