Giving is more than a grant check

By Mary Phillips

Foundations have much to offer grantees beyond funding and can do so while keeping overhead costs reasonable.

Administrative costs at a private foundation range broadly, depending upon the size of the foundation’s assets, its grantmaking budget and its program model.

While keeping costs low is attractive, especially as a way to reserve funds for direct grantmaking, proactive use of foundation staff can help funders hear new ideas, contribute to and improve projects, share expertise and develop relationships with nonprofit and community leaders.

Donors should not shy away from offering an accessible knowledge base of interested and experienced staff to their applicants and grantees.

Donors can employ several valuable, proven approaches to provide grantees meaningful assistance beyond simply writing a check.

The most commonly applied of these strategies is providing expert advice and assistance to both applicants and grantees.

Such assistance can range from guidance on finding the right fit between an organization’s project and a foundation’s mission to advising nonprofit staff on financial management, strategic planning, marketing, evaluation and even fundraising.

In lieu of or in addition to a grant, foundations can retain qualified professionals such as accountants and public relations practitioners, and provide these services as a resource to their grantees.

Assistance can take the form of professional-development workshops and educational opportunities for grantee organizations’ staff.

Some foundations hold regular group training seminars for interested grantees on topics such as outcomes measurement, media relations and board development.

Leadership development and executive burnout have been addressed by foundation-funded executive fellowship and sabbatical programs.

Certain foundations even provide office or program space free of charge for organizations in need of incubation for fledgling programs.

Perhaps the simplest approach to providing grantees with value beyond direct grants is the organization, convening and underwriting of grantee events for learning, sharing and networking.

Covering the cost of grantees breaking bread together is a minimal expense that has the potential for encouraging broader-based approaches to addressing community needs and developing relationships that encourage collaboration.

Extremes in either direction on administrative costs may pose problems from sacrifices in the quality and quantity of staffing at the lower end to over-inflated salaries on the higher end.

Administrative costs must be kept in check, but the downside of trying to achieve low overhead can be a staff so lean and application process so tightly shuttered that funders forego the development of relationships with nonprofit leaders that can enhance their grant strategy and help them to fulfill their mission.

Mary Phillips is a founding partner and president of Grants Management Associates and can be reached at

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