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Strategic grantmaking

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Mary Mountcastle

Mary Mountcastle

Mary Mountcastle

Funders and their critics often toss around the words “strategic grantmaking” to compliment or malign a particular funder’s work.  What do those words mean?

For some, being strategic means making fewer, larger and longer-term investments in one or a few issues in which they can develop expertise. 

There are advantages to this type of grantmaking, such as the ability to build deeper relationships with a small group of grantees, focus on capacity building for grantees to help them better achieve their outcomes, and gain greater clarity around expectations and evaluation. 

But it is not the only way to be strategic.

I believe that issues are too interconnected to be able to just pull out one area of focus. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s focus is children.  But as it discovered, to improve the lives of children, you must improve outcomes for their families.  And for families to succeed, they must live in thriving communities. 

That becomes a very complex set of entangled issues.  So what are some other ways to be more strategic with your grantmaking?

Build networks

Support clusters of grantees that are working on similar issues or who share similar goals or geographies. 

Find ways to help these groups achieve an impact together that is greater than any individual organization could achieve alone, or to share learnings across organizations to maximize their impact. 

Use tools beyond grants

Small amounts of money can achieve high impact by convening grantees to facilitate the exchange of ideas and common learning.

That can be through technical assistance and other capacity building and through using your connections as a funder to bring private or public sector groups that might not otherwise participate into the conversation with your grantees.

Build strong statewide groups that are connected to the grassroots

Statewide organizations are often most effective at aggregating knowledge from across the state, tapping into what’s happening nationally and applying that locally, and advocating for public policy change. 

But statewide organizations often lose contact with the true work that is being done on the ground. 

Funders can help local groups see the advantage of working closely with the statewide groups and help statewide groups understand the advantage and knowledge they gain from strong relationships with local organizations.

Collaborate with other funders

Over 20 North Carolina funders have worked together over the past five years to build leadership and organizational strength in Latino communities. 

In partnership with a national group called Hispanics in Philanthropy, this is a great example of how collaboration can leverage financial and knowledge resources. 

Funders who participate in these collaboratives can learn together about effective strategies and also can take advantage of the knowledge developed in other parts of the nation.

Support public policy change

Changing public policy is the ultimate way to increase the impact of any strategy.  Funders must support advocacy in any issue area where they want to see improvements.


Mary Mountcastle is a long-time trustee of several family foundations and sometime student of philanthropy.  

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