Evolution of Grant Making

Friday, January 18, 2019

With the Johnson Scholarship Foundation's grant program convenings on this year’s horizon it is instructive to consider how the Foundation’s grant making has evolved since 1991.

Our Founders’ plan was to use education as a vehicle to help people who hadn’t been as “lucky with money” as they had. To that end, they established some priorities for the first $3 million in grants and left the rest for future Boards to determine. In the 27 years that have followed, the Foundation’s underlying vision has remained constant but grant making process and strategy have changed and improved.

The Foundation’s first discretionary programs were developed in the mid-1990s and were designed to serve American Indians. In 2002 the Board adopted core values and a mission statement, to “assist disadvantaged people to obtain education.” The core values affirmed the Foundation’s connection to entrepreneurship and risk taking and expressed its intention to dedicate some of its grant making to novel ideas and niche areas.

The Foundation also resolved in 2002 to concentrate its discretionary grant making in three areas: American Indians (now Indigenous peoples in the U.S. and Canada), economically disadvantaged people and people with disabilities. Since 2002 we have, with the aid of consultants, special committees and Board retreats every three or four years, continued to examine our experience and grant making.

From 2004 to 2007 the Foundation systematically reviewed its grant strategies. It simplified its grant making in service of Indigenous people by narrowing its scope and reducing the number of participating institutions. This allowed more attention and larger grants to remaining grantees and better measurement of results. This was coupled with a program to help tribal colleges and universities to build endowments, which would serve Indigenous students in perpetuity and allow the Foundation to move on to other tribal colleges and universities.

Changes in grant making serving people with disabilities included the decision to fund organizations dedicated to employment. This was based on our recognition of high unemployment rates, even among those with university degrees. The Foundation’s grants in this area now had two thrusts: scholarships for education and grants to nonprofit organizations who help people with disabilities to obtain employment. The Foundation’s mission was expanded to “education and employment.” A better job, career or business is the destination; education is the vehicle.

City Music youth with staff. Photo by Mike Spencer.The Foundation’s grant making for students with economic disadvantage has become increasingly concerned with mentoring. We invested in programs (Berklee City Music for example) which made connections with young students, taught and mentored them though middle and high school and provided scholarships for college. We came to understand that students must be mentally prepared for post-secondary education, usually with some form of mentoring, to enable them to succeed. In 2008 the Foundation developed and funded the Johnson Scholars program, a school-based mentoring and academic enhancement scholarship program in Palm Beach County, Florida. Scholarships for post-secondary education continue to be our bread and butter but they are increasingly supported by mentoring and student support.

The Foundation has articulated theories of change and linkages between strategy and its grants serving Indigenous people, the economically disadvantaged and people with disabilities and has recruited members with specialized expertise.  

We have learned a lot in 27 years of focused grant making. However, our knowledge is tempered by perspective and the realization of how much we do not know. There are thousands of people and organizations working in our fields of endeavor and almost as many different approaches to “assisting disadvantaged people to obtain education and employment.” We can learn as much from others as from our own experience.

In 2019 we will hold three separate convenings of practitioners and experts in each of our three areas of discretionary grant making. The convenings will bring outside knowledge and expertise and Foundation strategies and programs will be examined and discussed in this light. This seems a good time in our development to engage outside experts and practitioners. It should aid our understanding of the problems we face and make us all better in developing and investing in solutions.

Our task – and that of future Boards – is to serve the Foundation’s vision of education as a means to better employment and a more productive life, even as strategy and grant making change with the times. 

Malcolm Macleod is the president and CEO of the Johnson Scholarship Foundation (JSF). Since joining the Foundation as president in 2001, he has spent the past 18 years working with the Board, staff and grantees to ensure that JSF is a Foundation that makes quality grants serving as catalysts for effective change. Prior to his work with the Foundation, he had a 26-year career in law and is currently a member of the Bar.