Lessons Every New Grantmaker Should Know

Jen Rainin

The Kenneth Rainin Foundation is celebrating our 10th anniversary of formal grantmaking this year. We’ve been thinking a lot lately about where we’ve been and where we’re going, so we were delighted with the timely invitation to participate in the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s new study, Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations.

For donors whose philanthropic journey is just beginning, this report will be a terrific guide to helping you achieve your goals. CEP’s results map closely to what the Rainin Foundation has learned over this past decade. Looking back at our own experiences, the three main elements for effectively getting a grantmaking organization up and running that the report identifies ring particularly true:

1. It takes leadership characterized by humility, courage, and resourcefulness to engage in meaningful philanthropy.

In other words, we need to be humble and bold. This may strike some people as paradoxical, but I think these two concepts go together quite well. Being humble means knowing what you’re good at; being bold requires you to pick goals that could make a difference if you achieve them. The Rainin Foundation was humble enough to start small and build a staff over time. And we were bold enough to pick issue areas where we thought our dollars could have the most value.

Our roots are in Oakland, California, so we decided to work toward an audacious goal: that every child in Oakland should read at or above grade level by the end of third grade. Will this be easy to achieve? Of course not. Yet we believed wholeheartedly that our dollars could make a difference for Oakland’s children.

When it comes to the arts, we felt similarly. We saw the profound challenges that artists encounter, especially in the wildly expensive San Francisco Bay Area, and still we knew that our investments in the arts — and in individual artists themselves — could help protect neighborhood arts and culture groups.

And the same was true for our decision to support transformative discoveries for Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Progress towards a cure has been frustratingly slow, so we embraced the challenge of helping advance bold and novel ideas about this complex disease to get new treatments to patients faster. My father died from complications of IBD, and I battle it every day along with other family members, which makes this goal that much more meaningful. This is at the heart of philanthropy; pick the causes you care most about and focus efforts on where you can achieve change.

2. It’s important to have a shared understanding among donors, board, staff, and grantees about how the organization will approach its work.

My father, Kenneth Rainin, established the Foundation to support his philanthropic interests and left the majority of his estate to it upon his death in May 2007. He’s the heart and soul of this organization. He’s why we exist. So when it comes to communicating my father’s outlook on life with our board, staff, and grantees, I have been intentional in my efforts. They’re curious about my father and his hopes and dreams for the foundation, and I’ve worked hard to bring him into the thought process when we discuss strategies and roll out programs.

This isn’t just an abstract exercise. For example, one way we stay connected to my father is through a special section in our board retreats that we call “Fun with Ken,” for which I bring in stories, photographs, and old films of my dad to introduce who he was to the people who didn’t know him as I did.

I also try to make sure that his values are infused throughout our work, and I look for fun ways to make that happen. For example, my dad was a diehard problem solver. He loved those crazy metal puzzles that seem impossible to solve. So one time I brought a bunch of puzzles to a board retreat, and as we talked about what we wanted to achieve in our work, we struggled with the puzzles. By the end of the meeting, we had each found a solution. It was as if we had channeled the spirit of my father, who never gave up and was fiercely determined, which is a key part of the amazing legacy he has left for the foundation and our staff and board.

3. Every organization needs to have a sense of what success is and an orientation toward learning.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this finding: make sure that you keep learning. When we make important decisions, our team carefully considers potential implications, collaborates with the best partners we can find, and looks for ways to make our grantmaking as effective as possible. Our staff members also understand the value of engaging with others to improve what we do. This is why we ask our grantees and partners for advice and listen carefully to their feedback.

Of course, if you are a philanthropist in the early stages of your giving, you will learn these lessons in your own ways and in your own time. But the findings of this report offer a valuable roadmap that will aid you in asking the important questions that will guide you as you seek to address whatever problems you are trying to solve.

Are you approaching the work with humility and boldness? Do you know why you exist and where you came from? Are you learning? If you can answer these three simple but very challenging questions, you will be well on your way to truly making a difference. Good luck!

Jen Rainin launched the Kenneth Rainin Foundation in 2009 and has served as its CEO since that time. Follow the Foundation on Twitter at @KR_Foundation.

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