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The One Thing Philanthropy Needs to Survive a Global Pandemic

By Guest Author September 3, 2020

By: Sam Caplan, Founder, New Spark Strategy

As stressful as 2020 has been, if there’s one silver lining it’s that philanthropy has stepped up in a big way. There are countless stories and examples of foundations significantly increasing their giving, sending nonprofits unrestricted funding, and encouraging grantees to reallocate granted dollars to whatever need is most urgent. Throughout this crisis-filled year, program officers and executive directors have spent much of their time reaching out to partners and grantees to understand what’s needed and how they can help.

That commitment to relationship building is critical, as much of the most important work in philanthropy is predicated on developing deep and meaningful connections. The grants management process often feels cold and clinical with its guidelines, policies and procedures, forms and applications, metrics and measurements. It’s easy to overlook the months of phone calls, visits, discussions, and debates that occur before a grant is officially applied for.

Philanthropy is about building long-term relationships and working together to find common ground, alignment, and a shared sense of purpose. Under the right circumstances, foundations and nonprofits should be collaborators in the truest sense–working together to achieve common goals and striving for the same outcomes. It’s easy to overlook, but my years in philanthropy showed me how much effort goes into establishing long-term partnerships and developing strong personal relationships.

Relationships are critical for philanthropy to survive a global pandemic.
Relationships are critical for philanthropy to survive a global pandemic.

As a technologist, I’m underwhelmed by how our systems and platforms treat the grantmaking process as merely transactional. Sure, most grants management systems provide the ability to capture contact and profile data. But for many funders, the formal application process comes after months of meetings, phone calls, visits, and working sessions. And unfortunately, many systems miss the mark when it comes to capturing all the relational data leading up to an application.

This is an important distinction when considering how grantmaking is rapidly evolving in 2020 to reduce or eliminate much of the traditional application process. Decisions today are being made based on trust and familiarity with partners, as grantees can no longer commit so much time and budget to an arduous application process. Today, funders are making grants with a smattering of required data, with awards being made in near-real time. And it all comes down to relationships and trust.

We need our technology to evolve with the same urgency that is redefining the funding process – enabling foundations and grantees to easily capture key details about their common goals, their relationship, their planning and collaboration, and their shared ideas. In doing so, a grant application builds itself over time – from emails, notes, photos, videos, drawings, recordings, stories, sentiment indicators, and other artifacts that contribute to a timeline of trust. 

When it’s time to decide whether or not to award funding, a foundation has a trove of useful data that answers the key question “Do we believe in this partner?” When the answer is yes, a grant can be made with the most minimal and expedient of applications–or perhaps, ideally, no application at all.

What about those foundations and nonprofits that don’t have the benefit of spending months working together or establishing a traditional relationship? How does a nonprofit looking for a solicited award establish a meaningful connection that expedites the granting process? 

Technology can help here, too. Our systems can facilitate a greater sense of community and collaboration, enabling like-minded nonprofits and funders to easily discover and connect with one another. Technology can bring together funders and nonprofits based on common goals or missions. It can also allow nonprofits to tell their stories in more authentic and impactful ways, enabling funders to accelerate the vetting, selection, and award process.

Capturing data from the outset of a relationship, discussion, or collaboration will be key in grantmaking going forward. As philanthropy steps up to the immense challenges of 2020–and beyond–it is imperative that our application and grants management processes become much simpler and more expedient, ultimately enabling faster access to capital. Technology that helps us establish deeper relationships will be key to establishing trust, quickly vetting organizations and ideas, and expediting decision making.

Technology must better support the way we develop relationships, collaborate, build trust, and get funding out the door because the long-term impact of the events of 2020 will affect how we do things going forward.

Recently, announced an intention to build a new comprehensive grants management solution. Read more about the new vision for grantmaking.

About the Author

Sam Caplan, Founder, New Spark Strategy
Sam Caplan is the founder of New Spark Strategy, a consultancy whose mission is to guide foundations through the profound opportunities brought about by the rise of technology and digital infrastructure in the philanthropic sector. We help foundations plan for a future that puts digital and data at the heart of their strategy.

Sam served as Chief Information Officer at the Walton Family Foundation, director of technology at the Walmart Foundation, and senior director at Fluxx Labs. He is a former board member of the Technology Association of Grantmakers. Sam consults, advises, and writes on social sector technology, strategy, and innovation.

Contact Sam: [email protected]

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