Proactive grant-making: Donors who take nothing for granted

Modern grant-makers and major donors are taking a more proactive approach to their work than has been the case in the past. Radhika Holmstrom looks at the advantages it can bring - and the risks.

The traditional image of a major grant-maker is one in which wealthy benefactors sit with their feet on their antique teak desks, smoking fat cigars as they leaf idly through piles of applications - or, perhaps, that Lord and Lady Bountiful while away their days blithely signing off fat cheques to support a friend's little charity, without much scrutiny.

Times have changed, and most grant-makers have had stringent application criteria for years. Although the traditional image is an absurd caricature, there is perhaps some justification in the view that funders are the ones in control and that applicants are often supplicants. But change is in the air. A growing number of grant-makers are actively starting to work out how their aims can be achieved and striving to identify the organisations whose work could make this happen. 'Proactive grant-making' has become something of a buzz term.

But what is proactive grant-making? At one end of the scale are the 'new philosophy' discussions led by the Carnegie UK Trust and the Barrow Cadbury Trust. These organisations want 'progressive foundations' to model their practices more on those of the conservative foundations in the US, by focusing their activities much more narrowly and reaching out of the voluntary sector (Third Sector, 28 September). To this end, Carnegie has actually closed its grants programme for the moment.

This isn't the approach for everyone, however, and isn't necessarily even new. "To some extent, grant-makers have always given to the people they know," says Julia Unwin, a former Charity Commissioner and a long-standing specialist in the sector. "There are still some that don't even receive applications."

Nicola Pollock, programme director for social change at the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, is sceptical about overusing the word 'proactive'. "Everyone has their own definition of proactive," she says. "It's part of the wider debate about grant-making and effective philanthropy - how we can give our money away and make the most difference."

Judith McNeill, grants director at Comic Relief, adds: "Even the term grant-making might be misleading: it's about developing partnerships or facilitating groups to work together."

It is clear that Esmee Fairbairn, Comic Relief and a small number of others are more active in identifying organisations and discussing the possibilities of a grant application. To some extent, this shifts the balance between funder and potential grant recipient, because the latter has something the funder wants. "One of the most productive approaches is to bring in the practitioners as well as the funders and work out what needs to happen," says Pollock. "The first step involves targeting and going out to talk to people, and from that identifying the gaps. The result could be a programme, a group of grants or a commissioned piece of work."

However, grant-makers believe this isn't the only way to fund. "Internationally, very few funders will support the smaller, African-based NGOs, and we want to strengthen African grant-makers," says McNeill. "We are identifying those organisations and will support them with both finance and expertise.

At the same time, there is a reactive element, because we want the grant-makers to be able to respond to small, innovative local projects. That's the risk of being proactive all the time. You risk losing those little exciting things that will grow."

One example is the disabled people's advocacy movement. Now mainstream, only a few years ago it was at odds with mainstream disability charities and, as such, might well have remained off the 'proactive' radar. There are other considerations, too - not least that the resources involved in researching and working with potential applicants mean there is less money to give away overall.

"It is an exciting development for funders," says Unwin. "The problem will be in showing that they've found the right organisations. The danger of the open-application approach is that what you get is random; the joy is that you hear of things you didn't know about. Seeking out applications, on the other hand, has to be done with considerable care.

"There is also a danger that grant-makers start to lead rather than respond - which is fine, but only if you have a clear base of evidence on which to support your work. You do have to be aware that you are taking a role in the management and manage their expectations of it. You have the money. They need it. That means the relationship is still unequal."

THE APPLICANT'S VIEW

Andrew Moffatt, fundraising director at the Mental Health Foundation, broadly supports a proactive approach

Money is useless unless you do something good with it. The most important thing is to decide what you need to do.

Historically, lots of funders have had a very passive role - I feel there has been a real lack of accountability, on the part of the charities, to prove that they've made a real impact with that money.

The whole discussion about outcomes is a very good thing, I feel - money is tight and we must make the best of it. This trend of moving into much more proactive, results-oriented funding is great. It makes both the funder and the recipient more aware of what they want to do and the real impact that will be the result.

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