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What's the Big Idea?

Post date: 
February 12th, 2015
Article Type: 
AGM Blog Post
Article Topic: 

What’s the Big Idea?

Particularly during times of transition or planning, it is useful to become acquainted with other local large-scale funder initiatives, whether or not we choose to adopt this style of giving as our own.  No two funders are alike, but knowing what others are doing provides an invaluable lay of the land and helps us realize our own purpose and meaning.          

As a recent staff orientation exercise, we quickly listed no fewer than 14 “big-idea” initiatives operating in the Boston area alone.  Programs focused on a range of issues, from quality of urban education to family poverty, crime prevention, environment and the arts.  All possessed these qualities:

  • Funder identification of a social problem and an articulated vision for change
  • Appetite for risk, tolerance for failure
  • Willingness to jettison other interests for the sake of a big idea
  • Adequate capital, usually $1 million or more
  • A public persona 

The decision to become a big idea funder is itself a big one, as there are significant tradeoffs involved.  Should big ideas be initiated by funders or the nonprofit community—should we lead or follow?  Is the almost inevitable decrease of public accessibility to funds justified by the potential for high payoff?  Can a funder follow a single-minded course of action while remaining open to new opportunities and unexpected turns?  These questions go beyond the merely technical and speak to the heart of a board’s grantmaking philosophy.   

Big-idea funding is almost certain to attract criticism, not the least of it due to its high position on the risk-reward curve and propensity for failure.  The pianist Artur Schnabel once voiced a preference for works in the repertoire that are “better than can be performed,” and big-idea funders show a similar spirit of ambition.  While they often produce breakthroughs, they seldom are entirely successful, nor should they be.  Additionally, no private funder can “own” a social problem, and the gap between big-idea grantmakers and their less resourced peers is often smaller than imagined.  Indeed, it has been our experience that funders sometimes contribute to their peers’ big initiatives without knowing it, exemplifying Robert Frost’s description of people “working together while working together or apart.” 

Philanthropy is home to many different styles of giving ranging from modest to ambitious, anonymous to public.   High-profile, big-idea grantmaking lies at the extreme public end of the spectrum and exerts a special influence, serving as a research and development arm and helping to define the principal challenges and opportunities for a region.  While we all want to be big in our own way, the greater challenge may be to cultivate a spirit of community and generosity, tempered by modesty.  Philanthropy doesn’t work well as a competitive sport or fashion show, but it makes for an excellent classroom.         

Phil Hall, a member of AGM’s board of directors, is a principal at GMA Foundations.  His ongoing client work includes coordination of services and regular grantmaking review for an array of New England foundations.  As the company’s Director of Grantmaking, Phil identifies best-practices and analyzes trends in a portfolio of client foundations giving over $35 million annually.


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