A Response to the Dialogue on What is the Meaning of a Grant?
July 22, 2005
by A. Keith Whitaker
The following essay was prepared in response to a discussion on the relationship between grantors and grantees in philanthropy—part of a series of six discussions entitled "The Dialogues on Civic Philanthropy: Perfecting Our Grants" (2005-2006). By clicking the links to the right, you can access more information on this series, learn about the Dialogues project as a whole, read other prepared essays, and download discussion transcripts.
WHAT IS a grant? There seems a startling diversity of answers: A grant can be a contract, with clear duties imposed upon both the grantor and the grantee. Or it can be an investment, in which the grantor seeks a “return” in a more robust common good. It can be innovative and strategic, or cautious and traditional. It implies some favor, and hence grace; but it can carry with it a host of demands and rules. And yet many grants resemble “free gifts.”
Some people aver that these conflicting views of what grants mean reflect a salutary variety among grant-makers, grant-seekers, and the needs they seek to address. But even though they may praise this diversity, almost everyone involved in philanthropy also seems to agree that there’s something wrong today with the general relationship between grantors and grantees. The roots of this problem stretch deep: the distance between the haves and the have-nots, the mistrust this distance engenders, the pride evinced by those who think having gold gives them license to rule, and sometimes the pride of grant-seekers who think that their need alone gives them the right to tell others how to spend the resources in their care. In the world of grantors and grantees, few people know just where they stand or exactly what they’re doing. Our confusion about what grants mean connects closely to our misgivings about grantor-grantee relations.
More and more grantors and grantees today embrace professionalism in order to put this uncertainty to rest. But, in my view, the turn towards professional or “institutional” philanthropy largely exacerbates rather than ameliorates these ills. Professionalism does respond to a real desire, among grantors, to show that they are “objective,” that they make their decisions using their “heads” and not their “hearts,” that, in other words, they are using their tax-advantaged dollars to advance demonstrable public goods rather than private “whims.” It also allows grantees to show themselves as “business-like” and efficient. At the same time, however, this professional stance tends to focus both sides on process rather than their own or others’ needs; it encourages coyness or even dishonesty in both grantors and grantees; and, in general, it stifles private initiative under a bureaucratic, “play-it-safe” mentality. In the end, the desire to prove “impact,” which fosters professionalism, conficts painfully with an even deeper desire: to heal humanity’s rifts and create flourishing communities.
There is another way. It does not require that we become unprofessional. Instead, it asks that we move to a richer, more encompassing standard than professionalism: the standard of friendship. Friends do not make “grants” to, “investments” in, or “contracts” with one another. Instead, they share. In its best case, that is what I see a grant as: one form of sharing among friends.
To understand philanthropy as friendship requires a surprising move: it demands that we focus on the needs of all the people involved in any philanthropic community. Most of the time we focus on what they have: grantors have money, grantees have expertise, and charitable recipients have, at the least, d
A. Keith Whitaker is managing trustee of the Morton Foundation and a research fellow at the Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.
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