Game-changing Grants: A Plea from the Trenches

June 8, 2017; MassLive

Two Boston institutions received massive anonymous commitments this week. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology received a pledge of $140 million, and a $20 million donation went to Massachusetts Eye and Ear. The first is unrestricted and the second is for work in Mass. Eye and Ear’s core mission: research on hearing and balance.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif said donations of this type are “the vital fuel that helps big ideas take off.”

“Generosity at this level is a game-changer. It means breakthroughs will happen faster, and that translates to better hearing for millions of people sooner than later,” said Wyc Grousbeck, Mass. Eye and Ear’s board chair.

There is no indication that the pledge and donation reported here are related. But, we would like to take this opportunity to make a point: Unrestricted, multi-year gifts are still far too rare. While most nonprofits could only dream about six-figure gifts, never mind seven- and eight-figure gifts, most could use a break from the constant unnecessary hamster wheel of applying yearly for grants in an expensive momentum-slowing cycle and from receiving monies that may be restricted for one purpose when they really need them for another. That is how organizational infrastructures erode, and even dedicated nonprofits veer off mission periodically.

Unrestricted multiyear gifts are a win-win, since grantmakers could then spend their time differently, perhaps helping to garner more support for the organizations in which they invest. Foundations’ relationships with grantees would improve and not be so darn tense all the time, with the great unspoken, “But will you love me tomorrow?” always looming between grantors and grantees.

Let’s face it: these two linked points of philanthropic practice—multiyear grants that are unrestricted—would make all our lives easier. But, just as an additional thought, funders could also consider funding reserves. Then, we could concentrate on serving our communities.—Ruth McCambridge