Cynthia Adams

  Cynthia Adams


My little company is deeply ensnared in transition. We have been in business for 17 years and are finally launching a new website. This transition has caused excitement, presented challenges, created untold sleepless nights for many of us, and ultimately made us re-think what we are providing for the nonprofit sector.

All transitions are like that. They shake you up and cause you to consider who and what you are. I have been living by this quote for months now:


“In the space between chaos and shape there was another chance.”
― Jeanette Winterson, The World and Other Places: Stories

In the few precious weeks between the chaos at the beginning of our transition and as it took shape, we realized we could look closely at our mission, reinvent ourselves, and be what our members wanted us to be. This made it all worth it.

Philanthropy has been going through a major transition over the past several years. Before that, nothing in grantseeking had changed in decades. And then – BOOM! All of a sudden we heard terms like impact investing, venture philanthropy, and spending down.

We aren’t just witnessing new ways of doing business, we are also seeing many new faces. Individuals who made their fortunes in technology have started giving away millions of dollars, among them Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, who in late 2012 announced that over the course of their lives they would give the majority of their wealth towards “advancing human potential and promoting equality.” Many new philanthropists bring a different perspective to philanthropy and grantseeking, and they’re leading the way on innovative and substantial changes in the field.

Some of these changes include offering prizes instead of grants, including the annual Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities competition. About 1,000 cities apply for the 100 awards. Rockefeller doles out around $164 million to these winners. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s $100 million prize, 100&Change, will award a single prize to the individual or group with the best idea for tackling a major world problem later this year. This competition received nearly 1,900 entries.

To complement the changes, a raft of reports addresses these topics. One of my favorites is New Philanthropy Capital’s 10 Innovations in Global Philanthropy, which served as the inspiration for our first national conference in 2016. Check out their website as they publish many reports addressing trends relevant to grantseeking.

Reports like the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s A Date Certain: Lessons from Limited Life Foundations provide us with insight as to why foundations spend down and what decisions are made in the process.

The Chronicle for Philanthropy’s What Will Matter in 2017 includes three articles for grantseekers. One focuses on how grantmakers drive social change by investing large sums of money into solving single issues, and discusses the concept of risk capital. Another focuses on a significant transfer of wealth. It is estimated that $58 trillion will be passed on to heirs by 2060. This article describes how to connect with those baby boomers who will be distributing their wealth. The third article is on prize philanthropy. There is still hot debate over the concept, but it is an idea whose time has come, and all nonprofit leaders need to understand it.

Think about Jeanette Winterson’s quote. Perhaps, as a nonprofit or educational organization, you can take this time between the chaos and the shape to seriously consider who you are, what you are trying to achieve, and how you might reposition your own work to fit into the emerging paradigm. It is a good time for your board to wrestle with questions such as how to truly achieve your mission, while your organization positions itself to take advantage of the new shape of philanthropy.

Cynthia Adams, President and CEO of GrantStation, has spent the past 40 years helping nonprofits raise the money needed for their good work. GrantStation exists because grantseeking requires a thorough understanding of the variety and scope of grantmakers and sound knowledge of the philanthropic playing field. Her life’s work is to level that playing field, creating an opportunity for all nonprofit organizations to access the wealth of grant opportunities across the U.S. and throughout the world.

This article is reprinted from Issue #9 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!

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