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High-engagement philanthropy: the grantee’s perspective

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In the 1990s, the practice of high-engagement philanthropy emerged as a topic of debate amongst the United States ‘foundation community’. Since then, it has become a common method of grantmaking among many funders. Foundations that adopt this grantmaking style – one in which they work in close partnership with their grantees – claim to create greater impact by significantly increasing the operating capacity of the organizations that they fund. Proponents of the practice have written extensively on the need for longer-term, larger grants that include technical assistance and contingent funding plans. Other perhaps more cynical observers suggest that ‘high-engagement philanthropy,’ at times termed ‘venture philanthropy’, is simply a new name for a style of grantmaking that has existed for decades. They also doubt whether it is more effective than ‘traditional’ grantmaking in which funders offer little more than a cheque and maintain minimal oversight after the grant has been awarded. To date, research has not analyzed high-engagement philanthropy from the point of view of grant recipients. The discourse so far has centred on why funders themselves should, or should not employ a high-engagement style. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to bring grantees into the discourse on high-engagement philanthropy in order to begin to understand the benefits and costs from their point of view. It focuses on one set of high-engagement grants given to a group of early childhood education centres in a small city in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania. The five grant recipients interviewed for the study strongly supported the high-engagement nature of the grants in question, and also indicated that, in general, they preferred a high-engagement approach to philanthropy. Although there are a number of limitations that arise from focusing on such a small set of grantees and one set of grants, it is hoped that this research will stimulate further inquiries into high-engagement philanthropy from the viewpoint of the grant recipient.

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