New Year's Resolutions for Grantmakers

December 23, 2016 Jeff ZMelando

In a few days’ time the Gregorian calendar will reset; the month we call December will end and a new set of 12 months will be upon us. This is a tradition observed by much of the world approximately every 365.25 days. Everyone’s favorite astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted last year that January 1st is astronomically insignificant (which did prompt the best response ever: kudos @theseantcollins, spoken like a guy that puts definite articles in front of his name).

Neil isn’t wrong. January 1st is neither an equinox, nor is it the winter solstice; it misses that by nearly a fortnight. Britain didn’t adopt January 1 as the New Year until 1752; Thailand didn’t until 1941. In fact Wikipedia lists 47 cultural celebrations of new years that are celebrated at other times throughout the year, such as the Chinese New Year and Rosh Hashanah. The Murador Aboriginal tribe of western Australia celebrated New Year’s on October 30th – and while they got the date wrong, they were among the first to set New Year’s resolutions. For them, the new year was a time to not only reflect on the previous year but also to look ahead. (Note- apparently the tribe has since become extinct for unknown reasons, though I’m pretty sure we can rule out resolution setting as a cause.)

Also, don’t let this news discourage you: according to a study conducted by British psychologist Richard Wiseman, 88% of people fail their new year’s resolutions. Despite this dismal statistic, I still think it’s an incredibly important tradition nonetheless. These resolutions are often goals we know we should be working towards anyway - losing weight, growing professionally, healing mentally. All of them noble pursuits, failure aside.

So, by now you’re probably thinking how does this all apply to grantmakers?

The simple fact is that the New Year presents a wonderful opportunity to press pause and get ready for the coming year. I know of a handful of grantmakers who have put a yearlong hold on their grant programs to focus on strategic alignment. Most organizations can’t take a year off, but they do have a gap between the end of year craziness that December brings and the start of the next year’s grant cycles. This may be the only downtime to reflect on what happened in the past year and make changes for a better year ahead.

Here’s my advice – start by reflecting on your organization’s strategy.

  • Reflection: Do your foundation’s governing documents or bylaws allow you to change or adjust funding strategy? I know of at least one private foundation that can only fund certain named organizations. The world is changing, and philanthropy will need to adapt old rules which made sense in the past but are limiting your impact today.

Grantmaker Resolution: Assess your organization’s governing documents, and work with your board of directors to make changes to key parts that are limiting your ability to have the greatest impact on the issues you are addressing.

  • Reflection: What is the current state of your grantee partnerships? There is a huge power dynamic between grantees and foundations that are currently standing in the way of progress - is that power dynamic acknowledged? Do grantees ever have the opportunity to provide you honest candid feedback? What are the bottlenecks in your process that limit grantee efficiency?

Grantmaker Resolution: Create a safe space for your grantee partners in which they can provide you with honest feedback without worrying they will jeopardize your funding.

  • Reflection: Is your funding outcomes focused? Do you tend to fund the same organizations year over year? There is nothing inherently wrong with that (see the entire previous bullet point about strengthening those partnerships), but are you funding organizations because they are helping you achieve the impact you wish to see as a result of your funding? Not entirely sure if/how much you focus on outcomes-based funding? Here’s a tool to help you assess: http://resources.microedge.com/assessments-tools/outcomes-maturity-assessment

Grantmaker Resolution: Take the Outcomes Maturity Model assessment, know where you are and decide where you want to be.

  • Reflection: Can you name the other grantmakers in your area who are funding in similar focus areas? We live in a connected world, so open yourself up to collaboration. At a user group I attended recently in Philadelphia, it was revealed that nearly every grantmaker in the city shared at least one grantee with at least one other funder.

Grantmaker Resolution: Reach out, go to foundation convening’s and networking events. Make sure you know where you overlap with other funders, share learnings, and consider partnering to increase the impact you are having.

I challenge you take at least one day to discuss internally how things went in 2016, and how you can do even better next year. Don’t be afraid of the answers, and develop an action plan you can start work on immediately - in two months’ time hopefully most of the new members at my gym will fall into that 88% so I don’t have to wait for the treadmills, and your organization will have become a little bit better at making a better world.

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