The five values that can help your grantmaking career

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Professional grantmakers attempt to do their best in a world of difficult choices and constant pressure from every direction. Authors Gemma Bull and Tom Steinberg offer some simple, memorable advice to help you keep heading in the right direction when the pressures of the grantmaking life get too much.


Working as a grantmaker can be exhausting and confusing. Sometimes all the meetings, calls and paperwork can leave us struggling to work out quite why we got into this game, and what we’re supposed to be doing here anyway.

That’s why we spent much of the last two years writing a book for overwhelmed grantmakers: Modern Grantmaking. It’s a guide that aims to help grantmakers with practical problems, today, while not forgetting that we all need to be working to transform our not-always-unproblematic industry at the same time.

Underpinning Modern Grantmaking are five values. These emerged from a huge number of conversations with grantmakers and grantees in numerous countries, and we think they underpin some of the biggest movements that are shaking up grantmaking right now.

These five values are practical and useful because they can help you to clarify what might otherwise be very vague and head-spinning feelings that ‘something isn’t quite right’.  

All you need to do is to think about an activity or project you may have on the go at the moment, and ask yourself, “Are our actions in alignment with these five values?”

So, enough with the wind up, what are the five core values of Modern Grantmaking?

First up is humility. Humility in grantmaking means simply not seeing yourself as better than the people you’re making grants to. It’s essential because without humility you’ll tend to make all sorts of arrogant grantmaking mistakes: errors that are inevitable if you think you’re smarter and better than the subject experts that we normally call ‘grantseekers’ and ‘grantees’. We call humility the first amongst equals of our five values because if you can practice it well enough, most other good funding practices will tend to follow naturally.

Number two in our list is the value of equity.  In our definition, this means looking at all aspects of grantmaking and constantly asking the question ‘Does this seem fair and just?’

Why is this so important? Well, traditional grantmaking can, unfortunately, quite often suffer from a very visible lack of fairness. For example, grant money can and does often end up flowing along paths of least resistance towards organisations whose leaders dwell in the same social circles as philanthropists or grantmakers, often at the expense of organisations and leaders that simply never get invited to the right parties.

Valuing equity drives grantmakers towards making both external and internal changes. Externally, it can nudge funders to make anti-racist grants, and can help ensure that money is used to support nonprofits led by people who experience different types of inequality, from disability to class to gender. Internally, valuing equity can cause funders to change recruitment policies, rebuild applications processes, even change who makes funding decisions and who sits on boards. Equity is an idea that has been too long in coming to grantmaking, but it has definitely arrived.

The third value of Modern Grantmaking is evidence. Valuing Evidence means manifestly caring about whether or not a grant is successful, has no impact or creates harm. Manifestly caring about impact means taking steps you wouldn’t otherwise take to evaluate grants properly, and to participate in the wider process of useful knowledge generation. In practice valuing evidence means valuing all the powerful things that trained, professional researchers can offer to help you make your next grant better than your last, which means being willing to pay for their services without seeing them as ‘overheads’. 

Fourth on our values list is service. This might strike you as a bit strange, especially if your funder thinks of grantees as people and organisations that should be jolly grateful for what they get. After all, as grantmakers we don’t have to treat grantseekers like businesses treat customers. But the value of service means that we should treat them as if they could walk away.

We should value service not just because it’s moral to be nice and respectful to hard working people, but much more urgently because if we make our money exhausting and difficult to access, then it will tend to skew towards highly educated people who can overcome all the barriers we erect. Funding organisations that don’t value service are fundamentally funding organisations that don’t want to give money to people without university degrees.

Lastly, diligence is the fifth and final value of modern grantmaking. It means putting in the hours and the effort to actually try to do grantmaking well, and not coasting along on the idea that grantmaking must be easy because – goodness me – isn’t it easy to spend a lot at IKEA in one afternoon? Diligent grantmakers understand that just because it’s easy to chuck money out the window, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make impactful grants in a way that is humble, equitable, service driven, and evidence based.

So those are the five values of Modern Grantmaking. If you want to run a session with your own colleagues that may reveal some fascinating and fundamental differences in perspective, we recommend staging a 90-minute discussion session structured around them. If you want to know if you are yourself doing a good job, get a friend to ask you about each value, one at a time, getting you to reflect out loud on how your own recent work has or has not lived up to them.

If you find this a motivating and invigorating idea, please consider joining us for our chapter-by-chapter book club which starts this September, as we go into much more detail through the values and the practices which we believe constitute Modern Grantmaking. Drop us an email at hello@moderngrantmaking.com

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Gemma Bull, Co-author Modern Grantmaking 

Find Gemma on Twitter @GemmaCBull and LinkedIn

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Tom Steinberg – Co-author Modern Grantmaking

Find Tom on Twitter @Steiny and LinkedIn

Credit @polarmermaid