Twenty Ways to Make a Difference: Stories from Small Foundations

According to a rule of thumb I just made up, book reviews should probably be no longer than five percent of the book being reviewed.

That presents a challenge with Twenty Ways to Make a Difference, which in thirty-seven short pages aims to teach foundations "how relatively small amounts of money...can be put to work to change lives, increase opportunities, strengthen human connections, and build a more sustainable environment."

This diminutive but ambitious e-book, the work of a senior program manager and editor at the Association of Small Foundations, calls to mind Strunk & White's The Elements of Style, which in a similarly small package neatly summarizes the essentials of effective writing. While not quite on that plane, Twenty Ways to Make a Difference does an admirable job of condensing and presenting the essential elements of effective foundation work.

The book sets forth twenty strategies, ranging from the very general ("Think big") to the financially sophisticated ("Make loans and other program-related investments") to the almost trivial ("Provide meeting and event space to grantees and local nonprofits"). It's a motley list, and standing alone, it may not seem enough to inspire small foundations. But each strategy is illustrated with examples, and this is where Twenty Ways shines. These are not theoretical imaginings of how the strategies might work, but real-world scenarios culled from the experiences of ASF members. They effectively demonstrate how the intangible assets of a small foundation such as its reputation, contacts, knowledge, and imagination can far outweigh the impact of grantmaking alone.

For example, the Marion L. & Henry J. Knott Foundation found that one of its most effective ways of helping potential grantees was simply to nudge sluggish government agencies into action through phone calls, sometimes rendering financial assistance unnecessary.

Similarly, the Piedmont Health Care Foundation in South Carolina communicated its sincerity in fighting obesity not just by funding programs and commissioning research, but by setting an example with its own behavior: "We...shifted our board meetings from hearty, rich meals at a private dining club to healthy lunches at our obesity partner organizations."

Interestingly, many of the strategies in Twenty Ways take advantage of the government's relatively lax oversight of grantmaking. As Carroll points out, "Many foundations are unaware that the legal requirements for grants to public charities are minimal." This freedom has permitted small foundations such as the Zell Family Foundation to greatly streamline its grant application process (to the point of accepting "as-is" budgetary information!) and for other small foundations to fund and participate in almost limitless advocacy.

In addition to its strategies and stories, the book supplies Web links to many of the organizations cited in its examples and suggests further readings, providing many resources in its very compact format.

But while I heartily recommend Twenty Ways as a useful starting point for small foundations seeking to increase their footprint given limited capital and staff, I am surprised that it sells for $9.99, an unexpectedly high price for a tiny book that argues against the importance of money.

The Kindle edition of The Elements of Style, at sixty-four pages, sells for ninety-nine cents.