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4 key lessons to be better grantmakers
Matthew Carr
Director of Evaluation Kauffman Foundation
Director of Kansas City Civic Engagement Kauffman Foundation

4 key lessons to be better grantmakers

The Kauffman Foundation’s first Learning Report distills lessons learned to scale impact for grantees.

Albert Einstein is commonly credited with saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Here at the Kauffman Foundation we place a strong emphasis on learning: from commissioning research projects to gathering evidence on what’s working, to spending time reflecting on the successes and obstacles we’ve seen, to talking with our grantees about what lessons they’ve drawn from programs and projects we’ve supported. We do all of these things to ensure that we are continuously improving as a foundation, and as a member of our community.

For example, we recently engaged Cypress Research Associates to conduct a study of the capacity-related challenges faced by local nonprofits here in Kansas City, along with an assessment of the services that are available to help them. According to the findings, the top issue facing these nonprofits is fundraising, which was selected by 80 percent of respondents as a moderate or serious challenge. While this may not come as a surprise to many, the fact that only 44 percent of nonprofits reported seeking external support services to help with this challenge, and, out of those who did, just 38 percent indicated their capacity had improved as a result, suggests a significant gap that is limiting the nonprofit sector’s ability to be successful at scale.

As a result of this research, our Kansas City Civic team is exploring new approaches and opportunities to address the sustainability assistance gap that’s been identified.

Another important project we’ve recently undertaken is the creation of the Foundation’s first Learning Report. When each grant comes to an end, we ask our partners to share a handful of lessons that they’ve drawn on during the course of our work together. In particular, we’re seeking insights that will help the foundation be a better grantmaker in order to have a greater impact in the future. At the end of 2017, we reviewed every one of those lessons; we identified patterns, and distilled them down to four key lessons that will inform how we approach our work in 2018 and beyond:

  1. Starting a new organization involves risks which must be considered in the planning process;
  2. Talent and leadership at all levels is critical to the success of any project;
  3. Strong metrics and consistent measurement can lead to more learning and increased impact; and
  4. Projects focused on policy and advocacy have the opportunity to amplify our impact.

We’re looking forward to testing out new ideas and learning new lessons that will help us continue to create positive change here in KC and across the country. Check out the Kauffman Foundation Evaluation Guide to learn more about how we use evidence to support strategic learning and inform decision-making.

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