Is it better to be responsive or proactive in your philanthropy? Being responsive means being open to receiving proposals from a range of organisations and so, to some extent, letting grantees set the agenda. It acknowledges that those delivering interventions are more likely to understand the issues and know what is needed. On the other hand, taking a proactive stance means deciding what change you want to support and then seeking out those who can help achieve it.
There are downsides to both: being responsive can mean efforts are dispersed and impact diluted, whereas being proactive risks a funder driving the agenda without full knowledge and therefore missing opportunities. Sophocles, the great Greek tragedy playwright, articulated this dilemma: “Look and you will find it - what is unsought will go undetected”. Many funders mix both approaches but being proactive (aka ‘strategic’) has gained traction as the way to manage demand and maximise impact. (links below for further pro/con reading)
How does it work in practice?
One of the cheerful things I get to do in my consultancy work for grant makers, is contact organisations out-of-the-blue to tell them a funder would like to discuss giving them some money. As you can imagine, the reactions I get are ones of being very pleasantly surprised. They will of course still have to submit a proposal and take the time to have conversations, but I have just saved them time in identifying a funder to approach, deciding if the potential reward is worth the effort and completing more onerous and uncertain application forms. This approach also reaffirms that their external profile is working: they are getting their message across about what they do and how they do it well – whether that is through their website, reports, awards, social media or by word of mouth.
Being proactive works well for funders that have a clear area of focus and know where best to apply resources (both internal costs and funding) to achieve positive change. It saves time in comparison to processing high volumes of applications that can be generated using a responsive approach. However, it still needs time commitment in researching the issues so that funders are well informed. And, to mitigate the power dynamics at play, time also needs to be spent in dialogue with the selected organisations, making sure they can make the case for what they really need, and challenge any wrong assumptions that might be held by the potential funder.
The biggest downside of being proactive is the one Sophocles highlighted: what have you missed? What about all the excellent work that is under the radar; still new; too complex or holistic to fit neatly into a narrow search; or where groups are too busy on the frontline to spend time on their profile? If all funders took a proactive approach then ‘what is being missed’ could be felt significantly at a sector level. There remains an important role for responsive funding. At the same time, proactive funders must not become complacent. Keep researching, networking and reflecting to keep up with any chosen area of focus - and be open to the unexpected.