Positioning early-stage grantmaking organizations for success requires leadership characterized by a willingness to learn, take risks, and align expectations among stakeholders, a report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy finds.
Funded by the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, the report, Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations (39 pages, PDF), examined what it takes for philanthropies to get up and running effectively. Based on interviews with thirty-five trustees, CEOs, and program and operations staff of grantmakers with at least $350 million in assets that were established or saw significant growth in the past twenty years, the report found three key elements of success — leadership characterized by humility, courage, and resourcefulness; a shared understanding among donors, board, staff, and grantees about how the organization will approach its work; and an organization with a sense of what success is and an orientation toward learning.
According to the report, the interviewees said the values undergirding the work as well as the approach and mindset leaders bring to the work are particularly important in the early years and recommended that leaders be both humble and bold, learn the basics from others, and hire staff with aligned expectations. To build shared understanding with stakeholders, leaders need to get clarity on donor intent and wishes, establish roles and trust with the board, help staff embody organizational culture and values, start off relationships with grantees on the right foot, and prioritize the development of a communications function. Interviewees also recommended outlining what success would look like and how to measure it, as well as embracing learning and change as a natural part of the process.
"The shared experiences of those who have led early-stage grantmakers hold many key insights that can help those now in the early days of their philanthropy avoid common mistakes that result in wasted time, effort, and money," said Ellie Buteau, vice president of research at CEP and one of the report's co-authors. "It is easy for those coming from the private sector to mistakenly believe that success in philanthropy is simple, but building an effective grantmaking organization is challenging and requires humility, reflection, and learning from those who have come before you."