Take stock of this rising trend in grant giving: the ‘portfolio’ approach

At a conference held by the Grant Professionals Network of Central Florida in March, I was intrigued by a session presented by Mark Brewer, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Central Florida Inc. I have heard Brewer speak before, and he is always well prepared and provides thought-provoking comments. This session was no exception. Titled "The Evolution of Grant Seeking: Professional Development Strategies for a New Generation," Brewer’s presentation identified some of the future trends in grant seeking and advised grants professionals to begin thinking about their roles in a new way.

According to Brewer, two trends will have a significant impact on the grants landscape in the not-so-distant future. The first is that foundations will be looking at community needs or problems and designating a pool of money targeted to meet these needs or develop solutions to the problem–a trend known as "portfolio grant-making strategies." This will result in what he identified as another significant trend: Grant seekers will find themselves writing fewer requests for individual projects. Instead, they will have to collaborate with others in their community to come up with a "group" approach that results in a project with a significant amount of buy-in and participation from a variety of community-based organizations–including schools, businesses, nonprofits, and so on.

Some national foundations already have adopted this approach, addressing a community’s needs (such as economic development or homelessness) through a multidimensional approach. These foundations have set aside a specific amount of money and, in many cases, have designated a specific timeframe (typically three to 10 years) for project partners to develop and try new solutions to meet the identified needs.

This approach, according to Brewer, results in the development of one contract that requires all entities participating in the project to sign off on it. While the funder naturally will monitor progress, each entity also must monitor its own progress in achieving the goals and outcomes as stated at the project’s start. Those partners who do not fulfill their obligations may be asked to leave the partnership during the course of the project–and new entities may be invited to join, depending on what they can contribute to the project.

Developing collaborative relationships has always been an important skill for grant seekers, in my opinion–and this new approach to funding most likely will elevate the importance of this skill to an even greater level.

Under this scenario, school leaders will have to be even more amenable to looking beyond their walls to meet the needs of their students. Classroom teachers no longer will be seen as the only major influence on student achievement. Transparency among schools, parents, community members, and funders will become the norm. Grant seekers will have to be more amenable to working with others beyond their districts to help meet students’ needs. Grant seekers also will need to serve as negotiators among various partners, often outside school, to clearly identify a project, define the roles that partners will play, and identify the expected outcomes. And, finally, grant seekers will have to articulate clearly in their proposals how this "unified" approach to addressing the problem was developed, how it will be implemented, and how it will be measured for its effectiveness.

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