Grants are social investments, and grantmakers want a good return on investment (ROI). Ideally, the projects they fund will continue long after the grants end, well-targeted awards will set off continuing avalanches of change, and the ROI on grant dollars will be clear. Because focusing on sustainability is equated with the wise investment of resources, related questions in application guidelines are predictable. Is this project sustainable? How will you continue services when the grant money is gone? Will this grant award be a good investment?
Maintaining change-generating activities beyond the grant period is ideal, but not always possible. If direct changes end when a grant ends, does that mean the project failed the ROI test? Not necessarily. Our current questions are clumsy. We’re grabbing for the most obvious proof-of-life beyond grant funding, but not necessarily the most meaningful.
Well-targeted grants can promote long-term, root-cause-level change, but are seldom the skeleton key. It’s the micro-level, revolution-by-a-thousand-cuts work by community members and grassroots organizations that more often leads to solutions. Viewing grants as catalysts to spark and fuel community cohesion and momentum can amplify their change-making power. When we think of grants as catalysts rather than solutions, the questions we’re now asking about impact and sustainability are less important and a different set of questions emerges.
Learning — A project that does not work can tell us as much as a project that does. It’s what we learn and how we use that knowledge that matters for the long haul. This viewpoint argues that we approach grant-funded work with mutual transparency and focus on learning, reflection, and the sharing of knowledge. Can both grantmakers and nonprofits feel safe with full transparency? Can grantmakers support learning, reflection, and the sharing of knowledge as catalysts that seed and nurture progress? Can nonprofits do the same within a framework of accountability?
Community Engagement — Once mobilized, the energy generated by genuine community engagement continues, reflecting the passions and concerns of the people involved. Once people are active and connected, they don’t sit down and shut up when the grant money is gone. Can grantmakers recognize authentic community involvement as a self-perpetuating engine of change? Can nonprofits nurture that energy and support skill-building to stoke ongoing action?
Focus on Causes — The systemic causes of racism, sexism, and environmental destruction have been sidelined for decades as we’ve focused on the products of those diseases—economic and health disparities, homelessness, violence, and myriad other symptoms. But until we disrupt the root causes of societal problems, we won’t see fundamental change. Can grantmakers value work on causes even though direct impact may not be seen until well after the grant period? Can nonprofits flip the focus to causes while still providing relief for symptoms?
Momentum — Deep, change-generating shifts in values and behaviors don’t happen quickly. Yet grant funding is generally short term. Given the glacial pace of societal change, building and maintaining the momentum that will help us stay the course is essential. Can grantmakers support the creation of momentum as an essential element of long-term progress? Can nonprofits intentionally include momentum-building activities in all aspects of their work?
Micro-changes — Policy-level change is imperative, but unless community values and behaviors change along with laws, life won’t feel much different on the hometown sidewalk. Along with policy-level macro-actions, it will take millions of individual micro-actions to achieve deeply embedded progress. Can grantmakers recognize the importance of accumulating micro-changes at the community level as essential to uprooting the causes of our problems? Can nonprofits nurture and amplify those micro-changes?
It’s easier to measure the immediate impact of grant-funded work than it is to measure subtle alterations in values, beliefs, and actions that play out over time. It’s easier to measure increases in knowledge and skills or decreases in tons of phosphates running into rivers than it is to document the dawning commitment to change within people’s minds and hearts.
Measuring short-term results helps to keep programs on track. But we need to look deeper than the apparent, quantitative changes to capture and value the little, human-faced, qualitative changes that accumulate and alter our interactions and discussions.
Moving forward, maybe our evaluators should be ethnographers instead of statisticians. Maybe ROI should be assessed by psychologists and humanitarians rather than accountants. Maybe we can find a way to value the small, individual acts of kindness, courage, and awakening that are stepping-stones on the long road to a home where we are all one family.
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