Lessons Learned 1996-2001
1. For Grants, More (Often) is Always Better
Some funders disperse grants twice per year or even just once per year, but from day one we felt that approving grants every quarter would best position our grantees for opportune intervention and impact. Admittedly, awarding grants four times per year can sometimes put a strain on our small staff and all-volunteer board, as on any given day reviews of letters of intent, proposals or grant decisions are always in motion. It’s worth the effort, however, as the grantee feedback we received in 1996 is the same as we receive today: quarterly grants allow the needs of Chicago’s medically underserved to be addressed in a consistently timely and responsive manner.
2. For Want of a Nail
Paying for CTA tokens, childcare, or culturally appropriate health education materials are hardly, at first blush, the stuff of a foundation board’s dreams. In our first years of grantmaking we saw too many clever programs fail due to the “for want of a nail” syndrome, however, to turn a deaf ear to requests richer in impact than sophistication. “Nuts and bolts” needs are easy to overlook, but an upfront assessment of practical and logistical issues can be time well spent, and we quickly learned that funding such needs can often be a sound—and key—investment.
3. While Developing New Solutions, You Still Need Soup on the Table
Like most funders, we hope that through our grantmaking we can help develop new solutions to some of the challenges facing underserved populations, and address and attack the root of problems. An early tenet of our grantmaking philosophy, though, was that while innovations are being tested and novel approaches developed, disadvantaged children still need health care and counseling at their schools, medically underserved young mothers still require the key health services to improve their lives and those of their babies, and the homebound still need to be able to rely on the crucial treatment provided by a visiting nurse. In short, we came to believe that grantmakers cannot afford to ignore the present in pursuit of the future. From 1996 on, therefore, we’ve tried to achieve a balance in our grantmaking that reflects a combination of proactive and reactive, pilot and time-tested, and innovation and tradition.
4. Bring the Mountain to Muhammad
Many of our most successful grants during our first five years provided services on-site at a familiar and trusted location where the target population was already present or used to gathering. From school-based health centers to homeless shelters to a groundbreaking program delivering integrated primary care and mental health services to the chronically mentally ill, we found that new efforts were most likely to succeed when they drew upon existing relationships between sites and clients.
5. It’s Worth the Risk: Foundations Should be Trailblazers
VNA has always believed that foundations should be risk-takers, willing to take chances on innovative programs, grassroots agencies, and new models of service delivery to address societal ills. In fact, we feel that private foundations are uniquely positioned to take risk, because they don’t have to rely on tax dollars, individual largess or business profit to fund worthy needs. For these reasons, if we feel that an inventive program or little agency with a big idea has a chance to succeed, we’ll give it support to see it either blossom or wither on the vine—and know we will learn something helpful from either outcome.