Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What’s Wrong with a Standard of ‘Excellence’ in Grantmaking?

The role of the nonprofit sector is to address the kinds of problems that haven’t been able to resolved in the consumer-driven marketplace. This concept has been well described by economists such as Hansmann (1981) who called this contract failure to imply individual consumer’s unwillingness to pay for goods and services that are for the benefit of all. More colloquially, we call this the tragedy of the commons wherein goods and services that benefit the masses cannot be sold through a capitalistic approach. The nonprofit sector exists, then, to correct marketplace failures so that the things that are good for society—environmental conservation, cultural expression, and opportunities for advancement by those who are poor—actually get addressed. Hence, the nomenclature of nonprofit is not to imply an inability to retain a profit, after all, every enterprise needs a financial surplus to be sustainable and vital, but rather to describe activities that exist outside of profit-making motives.

Because nonprofit entities are responsible for redressing problems that have failed to be addressed in the marketplace, private foundation grantmakers should be wary of incorporating competition-based approaches in their practices. Merit-based decision-making has been repeatedly shown to be inadvertently discriminatory: “According to the ideology of meritocracy, inequality is seen to be fair because everyone presumably has an equal (or at least an adequate) chance to succeed, and success is determined by individual merit (McNamee & Miller, 2009, p. 4).” In other words, if meritocracy worked—that is, if everyone enjoyed fair and equal opportunities based on a level playing field—then there really wouldn’t be a need for charitable and philanthropic entities to exist. The proprietary sector would be an effective place for everyone to be able to rise out of poverty. But we know that for those who struggle, the opportunity to make money is not fairly distributed. Therefore, why do private foundations apply the same marketplace-based principles and practices that further disadvantage the already disadvantaged?

A foundation practice that harms rather than helps is decision-making based on the notion of excellence. Making excellence a primary criterion precludes supporting those who lack capacity. Put another way, a standard of excellence ensures that resources flow to those with already demonstrated capacity. Capacity, in this case, can mean a lack of demonstrated success, not being well-connected to foundation insiders, an insufficient budget size, or inexperience. By giving grants based on excellence, this favors applicants with a demonstrated track record of success, those with insider connections, and those with enough savvy to know how to work the foundation system in their favor; in other words, a criterion of excellence perpetuates an elitism that should have no place in a sector tasked with righting wrongs. Standards of merit and excellence discriminate against those who fall outside of the right networks, who haven’t had advantages to navigate grantmaking processes, and who lack the individual capacity to excel in this system. Think of rural communities, poor communities without local donors, and non-English speaking communities and you get a sense of who gets left out of a system of philanthropic meritocracy.

The problem of an excellence-based grantmaking lens is inextricably tied to the problem of competition in grantmaking. For sure, there are far too many applicants than foundations can support, but supporting those who are good competitors precludes those who are of different backgrounds, networks, experiences, and knowledge. By making decisions based on best articulation of a project, superior editing of a proposal, the most seamless site visit experiences, and a track record of success, foundation support will always go to those who already demonstrate success. Now, I don’t have a problem with this necessarily—nonprofits that have these elements (i.e., they have their act together)—are a safe bet for successfully working toward their mission. In other words, the most capable nonprofits should be rewarded in a competitive grantmaking environment. But the problem is that the peoples, regions, and issues that lack capacity and are, therefore, not as competitive, are the ones that most need grantmaker support and yet remain under-served philanthropically. Therefore, the practice of competition should be based more on redistributive outcomes and less on excellence.

Gatekeepers to philanthropic wealth would be well served if they become more self-critical of their own biases. This means that for those who were richly rewarded in the capitalist system, it means having the humility to recognize that how they achieved their success cannot be universally applied to others. It also means that for program staff who have risen because of their accomplishments, attention to detail, and creativity, it means having a kind of sympathy that can overlook spelling errors, lack of perfect execution and written articulation, and proposals that seem non-sexy for being focused on necessities and basics. All this means that grantmakers would do well to ask themselves:

  • How are my personal biases and expectations of what it means to be successful inadvertently blocking those with less means and capacity access to opportunities that I control?
  • Is access to funding based on inadvertently discriminatory practices that make it harder for poor, non-urban, or culturally different people to compete?
  • Are those with the ‘right’ connections better able to compete for funding because it ameliorates my own and therefore my foundation’s risk?
  • Do I feel more comfortable investing in people with whom I feel I have a cultural connection? For instance, do we listen to the same NPR programs? Did we share the same alma mater or major? Do we have children in the same schools? Do we bond over the same sports teams? Do we compare frequent flier experiences?
  • Do I make myself accessible to people in communities that fall outside of standard nonprofit spheres? Keep in mind that opportunities arise from simple luck—chance encounters, unexpected connections. If foundation trustees and employees only network within their own familiar circles, then not only are those outside of your cultural, academic, and professional networks already disadvantaged, but they are even deprived of the opportunity for dumb luck to strike.

This kind of introspective questioning can improve how foundations redistribute not only wealth but also opportunity. Furthermore, such a redistributive lens helps ensure grantmaking dollars directly, and not through trickle-down effects, support those who represent the change we want to see in the world. As the wealth gap increases and already poor, ethnically diverse communities become even poorer (Hook, 2013), foundations must be part of the solution and not exacerbating problems.

All this is not to say that grantmakers should drop the practices of competition; after all, limited resources beget competition. But if grantmakers want to be able to change structural problems of inequality, then they need to be able to recognize practices that re-enact, not redress, unequal access. One major place to start is by becoming more aware of how competitive approaches based on merit-based criteria actually replicates the problems of the marketplace so that the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots become perpetuated in the nonprofit sector. If the nonprofit sector is the place to take care of societal problems that couldn't be addressed through capitalist economics, then private foundation grantmakers need to counter this by applying a decision-making lens that makes different backgrounds and limited opportunities important criteria over the criterion of excellence.

Works Cited

Hansmann, H. (1981). The rationale for exempting nonprofit organizations from corporate income taxation. The Yale Law Journal, 91(1), 54–100. Retrieved from

Hook, B. (10 May 2013). The racial wealth gap [Infographic]. Sojourners. Retrieved from

McNamee, S. J., & Miller, Jr., R. K. (2009). The meritocracy myth. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

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