10 Ways to Transform your Grantmaking

For grantmakers who feel stuck in outdated processes, it can feel overwhelming to think about how to evolve. You know you want to be more effective, but where do you start?

We talked to seven experts across philanthropy. They share strategies that will help you transform your approach to grantmaking. The best part? These changes don’t cost anything. 

From strengthening your connections to the community to reframing your attitude toward technology, the following advice can help you deepen your impact without cutting into your budget. 

1. Get strategic about tech

It’s 2022. Nothing happens without technology. But using tech is not the same as incorporating tech into your mission strategically. 

As Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN, says: “The size of your budget does not determine whether or not you’re going to be successful with technology.”

Amy Sample Ward, CEO of NTEN

You know the impact you want to make and why you want to make it. Technology is a big part of how you’ll get there. The earlier you connect the “why” to the “how”, the better off you’ll be. 

What does this look like in practice?

First, you want to clarify how technology supports your mission in your strategic planning. As you set forth your plans for the future, you should articulate how technology will enable your work. For instance, if you are delivering aid to communities in need, do you want to:

  • Reach marginalized communities?
  • Incorporate trust-based practices?
  • Seek feedback from the community? 
  • Deliver resources quickly?

The right grant management software can help you achieve these goals, but you need to be intentional. Starting with your mission will help you understand where and how tech fits in. Plus it’ll help you invest in the right technology. The last thing you want is to put resources toward something that doesn’t serve your work. 

Getting strategic around tech means that someone with tech management responsibilities needs to have a role on your leadership team. “Tech is something that requires strategic direction and should be managed and discussed at the highest level,” Ward says. 

As you dig into these discussions with your team, be sure that everyone is included. “When it comes to tech, everyone should be able to be in the conversation,” Ward says. For example, try not to get caught up in the details of how an operating system works and instead focus on what it will help your organization do. That gives everyone a way in. 

2. Build community partnerships

As a grantmaker, you’re delivering resources to the community, but are you in conversation with them? Investing time and energy into building relationships with the individuals and nonprofit organizations you serve will go a long way in helping your grantmaking be more effective. 

You want to open up lines of communication that move in both directions. Not only do you want to be able to reach out to your grantees, you want them to feel empowered to get in touch with you if they have feedback, a question, or additional requests. 

Marcella Tillett, Vice President of Programs and Partnerships at Brooklyn Community Foundation

Marcella Tillett, Vice President of Programs and Partnerships of Brooklyn Community Foundation explains her team’s approach: “It always starts with engaging in co-created space with community members and community organizations that we partner with. And that helps us set the tone for who we are, what we value, how we approach partnerships, and opens up space for other people to enter into that—and invite us into their space—which is really important.”

To build relationships, you need to be open. Transparency is key. 

Be clear about why you are engaging the community and be open about why and how you do your work. 

A lot of community members Tillett’s team works with have had very extractive relationships with institutions in the past. She recommends acknowledging the harm that has been perpetuated and understanding how you fit into the experience for the community. 

One of the main questions Tillett recommends asking is, “In what ways do we show up that are harmful?” Acknowledging that harm happens in funder/grantee relationships is the only way to move toward repair. 

To strengthen and formalize your partnerships, you can also consider incorporating a participatory framework to include community voices in how you set priorities and determine who gets funding. 

3. Learn more about the communities you serve

Part of effective grants management is developing a deep understanding of the complexities and realities of the communities you serve. 

Often the first step is getting past your preconceived notions. Lori Pourier, President of First Peoples Fund, describes it as “a process of letting go of what you think you know.” 

Lori Pourier, President and CEO of First Peoples Fund

Learn about the history of the community from the people’s perspective, not from an outside vantage. This will help you get a fuller picture of community members’ identities and their history. 

You want to recognize and honor the ecosystems that already exist within the community. If you create grants based around your value system rather than the community’s, there are bound to be gaps and missteps in how you shape your program. “Oftentimes those same systems that are designed to help tribal economies, or urban communities, or inner city communities end up having barriers,” Pourier says. 

It’s common for grantmakers to look to help provide relief or aid to help address a problem. However, it can be more powerful to reframe your approach around how you can lift up and support the positive things already happening within the community. 

For Pourier and the First Peoples Fund team, it’s about returning to this core question: “How are we staying rooted in community?

4. Develop sustained relationships

For grantmakers—whether they’re public charities or private foundations—it’s easy to get caught up in chasing the biggest impact. New crises are always emerging and organizations are looking to respond to the most urgent needs. Of course this approach has value, but it can also undercut your ability to build long-term relationships. 

Chris Hobbs, COO of Arabella Advisors

Making it a priority to stay connected to and invested in relationships with grantees over time can have a much bigger impact over the long term. Plus it positions you better to respond to sudden crises. 

Chriss Hobbs, COO of Arabella Advisors points to the big disruptions of the past two years as proof. “Some of philanthropy saw that it didn’t have relationships in the right places to affect change,” he says. 

To build those sustained relationships, be sure not to over-prioritize impact measurement. Hobbs advises grantmakers to view grantees as partners rather than entities to be invested in. 

You also need to be open to change. Nonprofits might evolve over time. Their mission might shift or narrow. Give them space to transform within the context of your relationship and look for ways to support their evolutions. 

5. Reimagine your processes

Too often grantmakers get stuck in old processes that are not only inefficient, but that perpetuate power imbalances. Reimagining your grantmaking process can help you improve equity and keep your program rooted in community needs. 

Brenda Solorzano, CEO of Headwaters Foundation

Brenda Solorzano, CEO of the Headwaters Foundation, explains it to funders this way: “It requires a radical, innovative approach to how you do the work.”

The first step is looking at where your organization holds power. This is not just about who gets funding, but about how your team sets priorities, makes investments, and whose voices are included in the decision-making process. 

“Look at everything you do and determine whether or not you’re taking an equitable approach,” Solorzano says. 

Ask yourselves what processes you can let go of. For instance, the team at the Headwaters Foundation decided that rather than hire a consultant, they would seek out perspectives from community members to help set priorities. 

You can also find ways to cut down on requirements. Are you asking grantees to jump through hoops for no good reason? Pare down your grant application or look for things your team can take on to ease the burden on your grantees.

Learn how to improve equity in your grantmaking

Watch our webinar with Kari Aanestad, co-founder of the #FixTheForm movement.


6. Invest in leadership capacity

Building leadership capacity within a community takes time, but the payoff can be huge. Find ways to put grant funding toward supporting community activists and helping them develop into leaders. 

By doing this, you are helping to amplify the voices of the people who know the community best. This is how you build solutions that actually work. Lori Pourier has been involved in supporting and developing community leaders, serving as the executive director of the Indigenous Women’s Network in the mid-1990s.  “As a result of a lot of women doing that good work in Indian country, we have some very successful models—whether it’s a community development corporation, a Native community development financial institution, or a tribal college,” she says.

Find the people already doing the work within communities and look for ways to support them. You also want to connect these emerging leaders with the institutions and organizations that have power and resources. 

Remember: you’re not trying to single out a few select people. You want to create a network of leaders and build a pipeline of talent that can continue to advocate for and lift up the community into the future. 

7. Move faster

It may sound simple, but moving faster can make an enormous difference for your grantees. 

As David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy puts it: “I think for nonprofits it can be really agonizing to wait around for months and months just to get a meeting with a foundation and wait around for a couple months after that to know if they’re going to get funding.” 

David Callahan, Founder and Editor of Inside Philanthropy

Do what you can to cut down on the time it takes to apply for and receive a grant. As you look to streamline the process, start from a place of trust. Asking the organizations you support to put time and effort toward proving their intent to you doesn’t serve anyone. If they have a strong track record and their mission aligns with yours, move forward as quickly as possible. 

At the beginning of the pandemic many organizations sped up their processes. If your team did this, look to make those changes permanent. 

As an example, the Headwaters Foundation treats their grant application process like a credit card application, asking applicants for basic information. It takes five minutes and has a 24-hour turnaround time. “If you’re mission aligned, we should be supporting you,” CEO Brenda Solorzano says. 

8. Center trust

You want to center trust in your relationships with grantees. What does that look like in practice? 

“The easiest thing to do is to shift from giving project support to giving general support, and to shift from a one-year grant to a two- or three-year grant,” David Callahan says. 

General operating support puts the power in your grantees’ hands. They can spend the funds you give them however they see fit. This enables them to invest in payroll, technology, rent, and more.

Allowing flexibility gives your grantees the latitude to innovate, build capacity, and adapt to sudden changes. If every time community needs evolve your grantees have to seek your permission to shift their strategy, you’ll cause delays and frustration for everyone.

“Grantees only have as much nimbleness as funders give them,” Callahan says. 

You might also need to reframe your approach to impact measurement and grant reporting. “There are limits to how much funders can have a micromanaging approach to evaluation, given the nature of this work,” Callahan says. Be inclined to believe your grantees’ assertions of impact. 

Be a more effective team

Submittable can help you streamline your processes and make a greater impact

9. Prioritize accessibility

Though many grantmakers have made a concerted effort to address diversity, equity, and inclusion, many have neglected to include disability in their DEI work. 

Of course, as a starting point you want to make sure your events and resources are accessible for everyone. 

  • Are you choosing venues that can be accessed by people who use wheelchairs?
  • Are captions enabled in your Zoom webinars?
  • Is your website accessible for people with low vision?

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Founder of RespectAbility also reminds organizations that it’s not just about access, but about how much people with disabilities have to contribute. “There are really incredible people with disabilities who are ready to lead on behalf of the disability community and others,” she says. It’s a disservice to everyone to leave those with lived disability experiences out of the work. 

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Founder of RespectAbility

To be more equitable and inclusive, you first have to work toward a deeper understanding of what disability means. “When people think about disability they don’t always understand that disability includes mental health and chronic pain,” Mizrahi says. “Disability includes a lot of things that are not visible to the naked eye.” 

1 in 4 adults lives with a disability. If you’re not making a concerted effort to be inclusive, you’re missing a huge portion of the population both in terms of who you serve and who you empower

Mizrahi advocates for a focus on building solutions. “There are a lot of groups who are under the impression that marginalization is an identity,” she says. “We know that marginalization is a problem that can be solved.” 

10. Form coalitions 

In grantmaking, it’s always worth taking the time to build relationships with others who are doing similar or parallel work to yours. That’s how you share ideas, resources, and create lasting change. 

In his work, Chris Hobbs often sees organizations duplicating existing efforts. “Reconstructing the wheel every time is something I see a lot in philanthropy and social good,” he says. 

Forming coalitions with other like-minded organizations is a great way to build capacity and advocate for change on a larger scale. 

Lori Pourier describes how she and her team have built partnerships with other organizations. “We found ourselves in a Ford Foundation meeting with other organizations of color. We found ourselves meeting separately from our cohort, discussing how the tools we were being offered would look much different within our communities–in Utica, Mississippi or on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Although we were given tools to consider, they couldn’t be replicated in our communities–it wasn’t going to work.”

By finding where their work overlapped, First Peoples Fund connected with like-minded organizations that also center cultural practitioners. These conversations helped spur the founding of the Intercultural Leadership Institute, which brings together organizations like Sipp Culture, the Pa’i Foundation, the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, and Alternate Roots.

For funders looking to facilitate these connections, sometimes it’s about bringing people together and then stepping back

Find the right tools to support your work

As you look to evolve your grantmaking, you want to have the tools in place that will allow you to be dynamic. Submittable is grant management software designed to help you streamline your process, support equity, and build deeper connections. Find out more today.

Laura Steele

Laura Steele is a social impact writer and editor at Submittable focused on the world of grantmaking and corporate giving. Her work often explores the connection between technology, equity, and social good. She also writes fiction and nonfiction. You can read some of her stories and essays at laurapricesteele.com.