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The Grantmaking School: What’s the Formula?

Achilles_bio photoJenny Achilles is a Program Officer for Philanthropy at TG in Round Rock, Texas. She began as a graduate intern at TG in September 2012 and transitioned to full-time employment May 1, 2013. She recently joined Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy and attended training at The Grantmaking School in Grand Rapids, MI, July 29-30.  She responded to the EPIP Summer Challenge to share her experiences at The Grantmaking School.  This is her story.

I showed up on the first day of class, ready for the formula. As a newbie to the grantmaking profession, I was hopeful that a successful completion of Advanced Proposal Analysis from The Grantmaking School could fast-track me on my professional development course. I was certain that after these two days of classes, I would be armed for my next set of proposals: I would whip out my red pen, consult my how-to guide, and make the perfect grant decisions. Uncertain about an applicant’s capacity for success?  Page two would provide a set of filter questions. Trouble deciding between two promising proposals? Page seven has a checklist. Everything was going to be easier once I left Michigan.

Spoiler Alert: there is no formula.

Those of you who have been in the field for awhile already knew that. Those of us who are new may suspect it, but it is tempting to hope that somewhere there is a list of required steps to ensure all grants are 100% successful.

However, while I still don’t have a prescriptive formula to ensure I always choose the “right” proposals, I do have additional tools and contacts to help me choose programs that will be a good investment and provide a solid partnership to achieve my organization’s goals. And I have new perspective on the importance of blending my personal strengths with those of my grantees as we work together toward mutual goals. Much of the training focused on the individual experiences and decisions that play such a significant role in the grantmaking process.

Far from bemoaning this human element, our class instructors celebrated it. We discussed the human traits that come to play for both grantmakers and grantees and how to cultivate a healthy, productive relationship between them. One of my favorite examples of this was the “Grantseeker’s Bill of Rights” (Finally! A list!), which outlined terms for engaging with grantees in a respectful, effective manner.

We discussed specific tools for improving our decisions, such as understanding an applicant’s 990 tax form. In addition we went over templates for grantee communication and best practices for ethical decision-making. Within the topical framework of the training, attendees were encouraged to share their successes and challenges. This provided context to various questions that can arise and allowed us to learn from each other’s perspectives and expertise. Each professional in the room had questions to ask and insights to share. As we talked, we learned from each other’s experiences.

And we learned from our instructors. The Grantmaking School’s staff and instructors bring a wealth of insight and stories of their own. They were open about their own mishaps and struggles. They shared surprises they encountered and tools they continue to use in their professional lives.

Following two days of class, peppered with informal chat time that allowed for additional exchanges, I feel that I was offered an intense, structured mentoring session. As a new professional, the opportunity to learn from the direct experiences of my colleagues was invaluable. Equally valuable was learning I had insights to share as well. In my 11 months in the field, I have already learned many best practices from colleagues in my own office, allowing for a two-way conversation that was validating as well as challenging, confirming our own established procedures as well as offering perspectives for growth.

I look forward to an exciting career where individual traits and viewpoints are celebrated. And I am grateful for the opportunity to take time out to learn, reflect and meet mentors so that I can be a more effective grantmaking professional…even if they didn’t give me a formula.

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