Creative Grantmaking Today: Redefining Risk in Philanthropy

Monday, July 23, 2018 - 10:58 am EDT
Magui Rubalcava Shulman

In 2003, when I was a co-recipient of the Robert W. Scrivner Award for Creative Grantmaking, the theme of the Council on Foundations’ conference was collaboration. Instead of giving a speech, one of the co-recipients, Luz Vega-Marquis,* demonstrated the spirit of collaboration when she asked all those in attendance who were part of the Funders Collaborative for Strong Latino Communities, for which we were being honored, to come to the stage. Suddenly, about 75 people came onstage to visually demonstrate the spirit of collaboration that the project represented. 

That moment was 15 years ago. Hispanics in Philanthropy had launched the Funders Collaborative 5 years prior, with a focus on building Latino leadership and strengthening Latino organizations. 

In 2003, the concept of supporting “Latino-led” organizations and our focus on Latino leadership was not well understood or accepted by philanthropy. Simply getting funders to understand the importance of constituency-led and owned organizations was a stretch, especially in areas where well-meaning organizations were serving Latinos, but not engaging them in the decision-making of their institutions. Fast forward to today, where more funders have accepted “Latino-led” as a criterion in their grantmaking, seeing it as not just being creative, but essential grantmaking.

Making the case for supporting constituency-led organizations – whether they be Black-led, trans-led, or people of color-led is less novel of an idea, although it is still an uphill battle for philanthropy. 

So what constitutes creative grantmaking today?

Robert Scrivner, the namesake of this award, was recognized as a leader in our field for his willingness to take risks on visionary ideas.

Today, creative grantmaking means changing our understanding of the word “risk.” Traditionally in philanthropy, smaller, newer organizations led by marginalized people are often seen “risky” investments. But what is actually risky is not investing in and trusting constituency-led work. The bold and innovative organizing led by grassroots groups is our communities’ best chance to win dignity and freedom. Supporting the leadership of these organizations and trusting them to decide how to spend resources is not a risk, but the smartest way we can spend our dollars as funders.

By not assuming we know what grantees need, and offering flexible leadership and organizational development support that they can determine how to use, we will truly build their capacity.

Creative grantmaking also means breaking down traditional grantmaking silos. Too often, we decide internally on categories of funding without recognizing the increasingly intersectional organizing that is happening in the movement.

The Transforming Movements Fund at Borealis Philanthropy offers one example of de-siloed grantmaking. Through the Fund, we partner with donors to support young, visionary LGBTQ leaders working within and across issues like immigrant rights, police accountability, reproductive justice, and more. Rather than having grantees adjust to our funding classifications, we must align our grantmaking with the way they carry out their work.

By putting these principles into practice, we can make what’s seen today as creative grantmaking into essential grantmaking in the future. 


*The Scrivner was awarded to four Latina women: Luz Vega-Marquis, Barbara Taveras, Aida Rodriguez, and myself. 

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Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion