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Invitation to a conversation with Meg Massey and Ben Wrobel on participatory grantmaking

We're delighted to invite you to our second Modern Grantmaking webinar, this time featuring two of our favourite grantmaking and philanthropy authors from across the pond.

Meg and Ben have written an incredibly timely book on participatory grantmaking called Letting Go: How Philanthropists and Impact Investors Can Do More Good by Giving Up Control.

In their own words they, "tell the story of the funders who have chosen to cede decision-making power to people with lived experience of the problem at hand. The stories range from a global foundation run by and for young feminist activists, to a neighborhood loan fund in Boston controlled by working-class residents of color."

Please sign up to join us for what is sure to be a fascinating conversation and public Q&A on 28th April 2021 at 4PM UK time, 11AM EST, 8am PST.

Meanwhile in #GrantmakingMemes

Thanks so much to everyone who has been joining in with the memetic fun. We'll annouce three winners soon, but for now keep on memeing with the hashtag #GrantmakingMemes

4th Book Extract: Why is humility the first value of Modern Grantmaking?

Humility is one of the key values for grantmaking. I remember thinking before I joined a funder that I never wanted to lose the stuff I felt when I was in the charity sector because that’s what gives you some of the humility and not thinking you know all the answers as a grantmaker. As time’s gone on, I’ve lost a bit of that and it does make me worry a little bit.

A colleague of mine once joked about the importance of humility to our funding organisation. ‘We’re so humble,’ they said, ‘if there was a league table of how humble funders were, we’d crush all the others.’ 

Humility is the quality of being aware of your own failings – of not thinking you know it all. People with humility behave without arrogance and without self-importance in their relations with other people.

Humility in grantmaking means entering every conversation with an assumption that you are no better or wiser than the person on the other side of the table (or screen). It means engaging in every conversation with a willingness to listen and to adjust your views in response to what you hear.

It is a value that can be hard to maintain – we all have a certain amount of ego. But we cannot overstate how important an attitude of humility is to the job of being a grantmaker. If you close this book now and take nothing else away from it, the critical importance of humility is what we would like you to remember.

At this point you might be wondering, ‘Yes, yes, but what does it actually look like for a funder to display humility?’ Well, Ford Foundation’s president, Darren Walker, wrote about it thus:

Humility is characterized by an accurate sense of self assessing not just our weaknesses but also our privileges and strengths, being honest with ourselves about both. The root of the word is related to the soil, like the word ‘humus’. Humility literally means being close to the ground.

Another way to illustrate what we mean by humility is to paint a picture of the opposite, that is, what we are trying so hard to avoid: arrogant grantmaking.

Arrogant grantmakers feel that they have nothing left to learn. They ‘just know’ when a grantseeker is a great organisation or when a funding proposal sucks. They read a funding application and judge its quality with their gut – they ‘feel’ if it’s good or bad in their bones, and then make decisions on the basis of those feelings. They sit in decision meetings and declare ‘If I ran this organisation, I’d do X’, even though, as one of our anonymous interviewees put it, ‘They are in no way qualified to make that assessment.’

Unfortunately, the sheer power that grantmakers have can fan the flames of the ego and arrogance that lurk within our souls. As the CEO of a private foundation told us: ‘If the primary virtue of grantmaking is humility, the primary vice is hubris.’ 

In contrast to arrogant grantmakers who are comfortable in their self-assurance, funders who value humility worry all the time. They worry that their judgement may be flawed or wrong, or prone to biases. They worry that none of their grants are making any impact – not even the ones given to ‘star’ organisations that are being showered with awards and plaudits. And they read post-grant evaluation reports with a cautious, doubtful eye, looking for weaknesses in the evidence rather than for vindication of their own brilliant decision making.

Humility doesn’t just drive the best grant decisions. It also helps grantmakers to be nice, decent human beings in their interactions with grantseekers and colleagues. And it also encourages grantmakers to listen more than they speak, which is good for everyone. We recognise that humility takes hard work, and that it doesn’t come naturally to most people (we’re still working on it!). It’s even harder to stay humble when, because you are a funder, people tend to flatter you, laugh at your jokes and tell you how clever you are.

Humility isn’t just about being a lovely, warm, virtuous person. It’s about cold, hard results too. Humility reminds us as grantmakers that we can’t create any impact at all without nonprofits and other grantees. They do all the actual work out there in the world. They make the difference while we mainly provide the cash. In a world without partner organisations that deliver services, run campaigns and innovate, we grantmakers would be as useful as a chocolate teapot.

Humility is also critical to improvements in performance. Humility is the value that puts funders on track to making this year’s grants routinely more effective than last year’s. An overabundance of grantmaker self-confidence, however, leads to stasis: this year’s grants will always have about as much impact as last year’s grants because arrogant grantmakers never really learn.

As Stephen Bediako, founder and chair of the Social Innovation Partnership, told us: ‘Grantmaking is done well when the grantmaker can see, learn and grow themselves from giving that grant.’ No learning means no improvement.

Finally, and somewhat unfortunately, some arrogant grantmakers have worked out that talking about humility – but not practising it – is good for their careers. One experienced foundation grantmaker told us a sorry tale:

We had this director of a foundation who spoke continuously about the need to be humble and to be aware of ‘our privilege’ but was notorious for not allowing people to state another point of view and for railroading them into decisions.

So watch out – just dropping the H word is not enough. If you want some practical advice on how to make sure you’re  practising humility in your work as a grantmaker, we suggest checking out our section on listening well (in Chapter 2) and on collecting and responding to feedback (in Chapter 6).
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