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New CEP Research Reveals What It Takes for Early-Stage Grantmakers to Get Off the Ground

Date: April 10, 2019

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Media Contact: Grace Nicolette, Vice President, Programming and External Relations, CEP: +1 617-492-0800 x236


Cambridge, MA — While there is no single blueprint for those new to philanthropy to follow, it is vital that early-stage grantmakers learn from the wisdom of those who have gone before them so they can avoid common mistakes and position their grantmaking organizations for success. With more than 30,000 new private foundations established in the U.S. in the past 20 years, this rings true now more than ever.

That’s why the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), with support from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, which marks its tenth year of grantmaking this year, is releasing a resource today that offers guidance for early-stage grantmakers getting their organizations off the ground. The report, titled Greater Good: Lessons from Those Who Have Started Major Grantmaking Organizations, distills insights for a new wave of philanthropic leaders seeking to build thriving grantmaking organizations that can best support nonprofits to achieve shared goals.

Findings in the report are based on interviews CEP conducted with 35 leaders — including trustees, CEOs, program staff, and operations staff — of 14 grantmaking organizations that were established, or that experienced significant growth, in the past 20 years and that hold at least $350 million in assets. Interviewees are quoted in the report anonymously.

“The shared experiences of those who have led early-stage grantmakers hold many key insights that can help those now in the early days of their philanthropy avoid common mistakes that result in wasted time, effort, and money,” says Ellie Buteau, vice president, research, at CEP and one of the report’s co-authors. “It is easy for those coming from the private sector to mistakenly believe that success in philanthropy is simple, but building an effective grantmaking organization is challenging and requires humility, reflection, and learning from those who have come before you.”

Based on common themes that emerged across CEP’s interviews, Greater Good identifies three key elements for grantmaking organizations to effectively get up and running: 1) Leadership characterized by humility, courage, and resourcefulness; 2) Shared understanding among donors, board, staff, and grantees about how the organization will approach its work; and 3) An organization with a sense of what success is and an orientation toward learning.

While these elements are applicable to grantmakers at any stage of their organization’s life cycle, they are particularly important for those in the early stages of building their organizations, the report shows. Interviewees report that the decisions made and practices implemented in the early years of an organization can embed characteristics of effectiveness in an organization’s DNA, positioning it for greater success as it grows and matures over time.

“As we have seen firsthand in our work at the Helmsley Charitable Trust, there is so much to learn about being an effective grantmaker,” write Sandor Frankel, David Panzirer, and Walter Panzirer, trustees of the Helmsley Charitable Trust, in the report’s foreword. “We hope that the lessons included in this report will help to guide, inform, and instruct the next generation of grantmakers.”

The report is available for free download on CEP’s website.

About the Center for Effective Philanthropy

The Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) is a nonprofit organization with a mission to provide data and create insight so philanthropic funders can better define, assess, and improve their effectiveness and impact. CEP received initial funding in 2001 and has offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California. For more information on CEP’s work, including its research, publications, programming, and assessments and advisory services, visit

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