Sometimes it seems impossible to tell the difference between good grants and bad ones. If we feed the hungry and house the homeless, it feels good but the lasting result is to encourage dependency. If we fund groundbreaking research on how to address poverty, the connection between our grant and the end result is usually hard to see.
Accepting accolades and congratulations from a grantee for our generosity, wisdom or hard work should make us skeptical. Are we really so selfless and smart? Or do these grantees need our money so much that they will say anything to get it? And if that is the case, have we done anything to help our grantees become more independent or is our grant just another link in a chain of endless handouts?
One of my favorite stories about philanthropy is a much criticized grant for medical research that was made in the early 20th century by John Rockefeller. Pure medical research was unheard of at the time and one incredulous observer asked, “Why would you do this?” to which the reply was: “Because we have the faith of fools.” It was not until years later that the grant proved its worth and medical research became a new standard in the world.
Effective grant making often involves risk of failure and, worse yet, risk of looking stupid. None of us enjoys being on the receiving end of a critic’s hindsight, “what were you thinking!” In the short run at least, it is much more enjoyable to be the object of a grantee’s gratitude and affection. But for really great grant programs, the ones that we are proud of in years to come, we were usually faced with the prospect of failure and, at some point or other, found ourselves asking ourselves if this program was worth doing.
Scholarships, education and even transition involve relatively less risk and reward. The Johnson Scholarship Foundation’s grants are less likely to be a waste of money (or to revolutionize the world). Our choices usually involve the question of how best we can utilize our limited resources and talent.
On the one hand, we may be overreaching with such programs. We might ask: Is this program too complex and expensive for a Foundation of our size? Can we really be a catalyst for the community support required to sustain this program in the long run? Time will tell and proper evaluation tools and data collection will help understand the impact.
Accolades should always make good grantmakers nervous. But striving for honest relationships and insightful data can ease the nerves and take the spotlight off of the funders and onto what really matters: doing good.
Malcolm Macleod is the president and CEO of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF). Since joining the Foundation as president in 2001, he has spent the past 18 years working with the Board, staff and grantees to ensure that JSF is a Foundation that makes quality grants serving as catalysts for effective change. Prior to his work with the Foundation, he had a 26-year career in law and is currently a member of the Bar.