What to expect from foundations

publication date: Jan 29, 2013
author/source: Patrick Johnston

Seymour Schulich, the successful businessman and philanthropist, said recently that “Giving away money intelligently is truly more difficult than earning it.”

Experienced grant makers recognize the wisdom of Schulich’s comments. In fact, Philanthropic Foundations Canada (PFC) commissioned me to write a publication building on that sentiment. Good Grantmaking: A Guide for Canadian Foundations, published in late 2012, is intended to help foundations improve and increase the effectiveness of their grant making.

While targeted primarily to trustees and staff of grant-making foundations, the Guide is also relevant to charities. In fact, the most effective foundations recognize their symbiotic relationship with grant seekers. The better informed the charity about a foundation’s practices, the more likely that the foundation will receive high quality proposals furthering its mission.

Following are three topics addressed in the Guide. Improved practice in each would benefit both grant makers and grant seekers and, ultimately, the people and causes they both serve.

The foundation’s mission

Increased clarity about a foundation’s mission, and its specific focus and granting priorities, could substantially benefit both grant makers and grant seekers.

This can be a challenging task for a grant maker. But, with more than 85,000 charities and multiple causes to support, foundations must make tough decisions about grant allocations.

When a foundation provides a well-defined statement of mission and granting priorities, charities also benefit.  For example, it makes it easier for charities to decide whether or not to submit an application in the first place. Good fundraisers will look for mission alignment; they won’t waste their time preparing a grant application with little chance of success.

If a foundation’s mission and priorities are unclear, a charity shouldn’t hesitate to ask for clarification. The foundation’s response – or silence – should enable the grant seeker to decide whether the time investment involved in preparing an application is worth it.  


Clarity of a foundation’s granting priorities will only be helpful, however, if they are communicated effectively. Sadly, communication skills and expertise are often lacking in Canadian foundations. It is telling that many have no web presence – the easiest and most cost-effective way of communicating.

What should charities look for as evidence of good foundation communication practices?

At a minimum, the foundation should have a website. And the foundation’s mission statement and granting priorities should be easy to find. So should the FAQ’s – answers to the questions the foundation is asked most frequently.  Charities should also look for a list of previous grants awarded by the foundation.

Charities should also expect, from the most effective foundations, a list of common mistakes made by grant applicants and common reasons for refusal. And they should look for a foundation’s use of Facebook, Twitter or other social media platforms as an added means of communication.

Nothing replaces the effectiveness of person-to-person communications. Charities should look for an invitation to phone or e-mail someone in the foundation if clarification is required during the grant application process.

While few Canadian foundations employ all of the communication practices outlined in the Guide, charities should feel free to ask for the kind of information described above.


Both grant seekers and grant makers are devoting more attention to evaluation as a means to better demonstrate impact.

Effective evaluation practice for foundations is a collaborative process, however. Grant recipients should expect the development of evaluation goals, objectives and measures of success to be undertaken jointly with the foundation. They should expect this to begin early in the process and not at the end of the grant. And they should expect that the cost of evaluation be borne by the grant maker. Finally, grant recipients should expect that any data or information the foundation requests during the evaluation process is actually used by and useful to both.

The issues raised in this article are dealt with in more detail in the Guide which, while not written for grant seekers, may offer them insights into the often opaque world of grant making. Better understanding the perspective of foundations may help grant seekers prepare applications more attuned to the needs of those ultimately making the granting decisions.

Patrick Johnston is Principal of BOREALIS Advisors, a consultancy supporting philanthropic and charitable leaders. He served as President and CEO of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation from 2002 until 2009. For more information, email him or visit www.borealisadvisors.ca.

Good Grantmaking: A Guide for Canadian Foundations is available for purchase on the website of Philanthropic Foundations Canada www.pfc.ca

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