THE BLOG
02/25/2016 02:18 pm ET Updated Feb 23, 2017

Grants on Steroids

Foundations are not built to respond quickly to policy problems that suddenly find public and political traction: immigration, humanitarian crises, viral outbreaks, terrorist attacks, natural disasters. But today's world increasingly demands rapid response. Grantmaking that addresses these issues requires a nimble and enterprising approach.

I learned firsthand the need for such an approach as a program officer for Ploughshares Fund, a global peace and security foundation dedicated to eliminating nuclear threats.

This summer, we faced one of our biggest challenges yet: protecting the Iran nuclear accord from the most intense campaign ever waged against a national security agreement. In July, world powers reached a diplomatic deal blocking an Iranian bomb. In September, Congress would vote on the deal.

The stakes could not have been higher. If Congress killed the deal, the entire enterprise would collapse. Even our closest allies would blame the US. Sanctions would crumble. Iran would ramp up its nuclear program. And with diplomacy no longer an option, we might be on our way to another war in the Middle East.

Addressing this challenge required spending a significant amount of money in an incredibly short time. We had three months to convince policymakers and the public to back diplomacy over war. How do you spend an unplanned $2 million dollars in three months to maximum effect?

Typically, Ploughshares Fund awards $4 million in grants over 12 months (plus funding for our own direct program work on nuclear policy). But our supporters surged their contributions and wanted us to act. Suddenly, we had to move nearly that much in less than three months. And we had to do it strategically: carefully vetting each proposal, weighing tradeoffs, ensuring that every grant we made was fiscally responsible and necessary for the campaign.

We didn't start from scratch. Over several years, Ploughshares Fund had built a network of over 85 organizations and 200 individuals working in favor of a negotiated solution to the Iranian crisis. By sharing information, reducing redundancies, collaborating where possible, and applying savvy digital organizing techniques, each partner strengthened the collective impact of the whole.

During the three months of intense congressional debate, this network kicked into high gear. As the coordinator of this network, and as a grantmaker, we had to adapt our traditional foundation process to new circumstances: a short timeframe with a clear policy goal.

Here are our key takeaways from this historic campaign, our "Three T's":

Timeliness
. A well-vetted grant made too late is an ineffective grant. We had to take the time pressure seriously and commit to moving resources quickly. Grants had to be made early enough for the recipient to be able to the use the resources. This was critical last August, when we faced a well-funded national ad campaign against the deal and the potential for ugly town hall meetings. For maximum impact, staff had to decide what projects to fund several weeks in advance. In some cases, we had to move resources within days to ensure we did not miss a project's window of opportunity.

Teamwork. We took a whole-of-organization approach, mobilizing staff not usually involved with grantmaking. With the support of our board of directors, we adapted to both increase the number of grants we could make and to make them quickly. Policy and communications staff identified potential projects, using their knowledge of our network to inform which grants we made. Silos between teams came down as the campaign's activities reached a fever pitch in late summer.

Trusted Partners. We did not try to tackle the problem alone. Other foundations, such as the Carnegie Corporation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Open Society Foundations, spent years investing in the experts in our network, helping create the capacity for a campaign in support of the nuclear deal. Collaborative forums such as the Peace and Security Funders Group provided feedback on investment strategies. The same was true in allocating resources. We made over half of the grants that summer to current or former grantees, whose work we knew well. The most effective new players were those we approached months earlier and were already involved with our network. Trusting our partners' insights on where our resources could be the most helpful was critical.

Philanthropy is changing. Foundations are not only exploring how advancements in technology can tackle the world's most severe problems, but they are considering how they can collaborate with other foundations and NGOs to increase the impact of their work. Our story demonstrates how such creative thinking can succeed, in this case helping to secure the biggest foreign policy victory of the decade.