The future of competitive grant making, in both public and private spheres, is of considerable interest to grant seekers and to those who work with and for them.
This post explores three trends impacting the future of private grant making: grants as investments, social media, and product-driven support. Its purpose is descriptive, not normative. Arguably, although the trends’ context is American, their scope and consequences are potentially global.
Grants as Investments:
The notion of grants as investments is a commonplace in venture philanthropy, but it is not unique to it, nor even to the world of private capital. It reflects premises that grant funds represent scarce social and economic resources, that they require careful stewardship and prudent use, and that providers of such resources ought reasonably to expect them to bear returns. The challenge for grant seekers is to demonstrate that their defined problems or needs – and their ideas or strategies for solving or reducing them – are worthy of an initial investment (and continuing or renewed investments in later years).
For grant recipients, the challenge is to demonstrate that they have made significant progress in solving or reducing those problems or needs. In the longer term, just as in other settings, if the investment underperforms, and evidence of this progress is weak or absent, the (public or private) investor is apt to invest its funding elsewhere – and to do so sooner rather than later.
Perhaps it’s too soon to tell if the emerging practice of awarding grants or gifts-in-kind based on the number of hits or clicks or ‘votes’ on a competition sponsor’s website is a marketing fad or an enduring trend. By hosting and advertising the competition, the sponsor creates a marketing buzz. There is little or no need for the contenders to craft formal proposals so long as they can rally more ‘votes’ than their rivals. Instead, the process replaces any more or less technical review of a proposal’s comparative merits with a popularity contest.
Manufacturing corporations usually seek to realize a profit on what they sell. By making their products available as in-kind gifts to school districts or hospitals or other entities they can create familiarity with their product line and brand. In turn, daily use can lead to loyalty and to a desire and decision to buy more of the products, particularly if they prove their value during use. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reports that during the 2010s corporate “donations of products are growing at a faster rate than cash.”
Sometimes a manufacturer’s product-driven support can be just as good as cash and its products can totally transform the places that receive them. The Apple Corporation once hosted Apple Partners in Education (Apple PIE) and awarded highly competitive grants of hardware, software, and extensive training to partnerships involving Apple, a school, and a college of education. The resources were worth as much as $150,000 over two years.
Many other corporations also offer product-driven support. In some circles, such as in health-related philanthropy, the trend of its use is accelerating. The challenges for grant seekers are to be able make effective use of the products they may receive, and to be able to tap other sources for the cash they need to be able to support their users and their ongoing use. If they lack options for obtaining cash, they may well be wiser to forego seeking an award of products.
A previous post explored three other trends impacting the future of private grant making: discretionary decline, asset attrition, and social entrepreneurship.