Philanthropy, Mobilized: Behind the Scenes of Grants Management

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What does it take to mobilize charitable dollars across the Chicago region? We sat down with the Trust’s grants management team—director of grants management Katie Kaluza, grants manager Shari Pundrich and grants manager Julie Shanahan—for a firsthand perspective.


Q: Let’s start with the basics of making a grant. How does it happen?

Katie Kaluza: For the Trust’s competitive grants, we often issue open invitations for funding. The Community Impact team identifies a need they’re trying to address, then releases a request for proposals. The other path is more of a direct process, where we invite organizations that have a strong track record in areas of focus for us to submit a proposal for a defined scope of work.

Julie Shanahan: Either way, the next step is for the applicant to fill out an application online. Our staff then reviews the application to assess whether it is a good fit. We often have review committees, so it’s not just one person making grant decisions. Once the community impact director makes a recommendation that the proposal should be funded, it advances to our leadership for approval. Our largest grants are also reviewed by our board.

KK: We’ve developed a set of evaluation criteria, including financial health, governance and alignment with our new strategic plan. Most people don’t realize that all the IRS requires is that we confirm that we’re granting to a 501(c)(3) organization, and that the grant has a charitable purpose. We’ve created these additional measures of due diligence for ourselves.

But we’re not looking at these additional criteria in order to be exclusionary. It’s not about choosing the biggest or most sophisticated—we want to support smaller, emerging organizations too. The due diligence is meant to identify opportunities to provide the right kind of support: to help an organization grow and become more stable, for example, or to build their ability to collect data and evaluate their programs. Our due diligence process helps us make decisions with our eyes open as to the types of organizations we’re working with, and how we can help them in ways best suited to their unique strengths.

Q: How does that compare to the life cycle of a donor advised grant?

Shari Pundrich: Our donors are so varied. Some fund holders already know what they want to give to. Others partner more closely with their philanthropic advisor here at the Trust for guidance. Either way, once a donor recommends a grant, I check for IRS compliance. I’m verifying that the organization is eligible to receive the grant, and that it’s for a charitable purpose.

After I do my vetting, two people on the Philanthropic Services team ultimately approve each grant before it goes to payment. Then it goes to the Finance team, where checks are cut and mailed. If it’s a grant that’s over $250,000 we’ll reach out to the grant recipient and arrange to wire the funds instead.

JS: A lot has to happen behind the scenes once a grant is approved for the money to actually go out the door.

KK: People may not realize how much we collaborate and coordinate with the other departments within the Trust. We also manage all grant making by the geographic affiliates, the supporting organizations, the funder collaboratives, the identity-focused funds. So we coordinate and collaborate all day long, every day.

Q: Does grant making vary throughout the year?

SP: In November and December, the volume of grants from DAFs increases by threefold, even though making grants before year end has no particular tax implications.

JS: Organizations whose fiscal year ends on December 31st are often doing fundraising campaigns, so it’s a popular time of year to give.

SP: Even though there’s a heavy volume, we don’t cut back on our due diligence vetting at all. So it means a little bit of burning the midnight oil sometimes. But being part of facilitating millions of dollars going out the door is always a good thing.


Pro Tips for Grant Making, From the Grant Makers

Want to make the most of your donor advised fund? Our grants management staff share their secrets for giving like a foundation professional.

1. Give to general operating support.

Rather than earmarking funds for a specific project, general operating support lets an organization deploy those dollars for best use. “An organization’s biggest asset is the people that work for it,” says Julie Shanahan—and general operating dollars support those experts in responding to the needs they see, flexibly and effectively. It also allows organizations to invest in their own infrastructure and build the capacity critical to delivering most effectively on their mission.

2. Shape your relationships through what you share (or don’t).

Shari Pundrich reports that many DAF grant recipients contact her with requests to identify and thank their benefactors. Instant Impact, your charitable control center, lets you customize and preview the information you share with your grant recipients. The Trust respects your privacy, and will never divulge information beyond what you include in the award letter—so if you’re open to receiving invitations and cultivating a direct relationship with the nonprofit, use the preview function to be sure your personal information is shared.

3. Tap into your network.

The Trust’s community impact directors are expert practitioners with deep roots in Chicago communities. But for making grant decisions, Katie Kaluza explains, they don’t go it alone—they convene a committee, so that greater knowledge informs their grant making. As a donor with the Trust, you have access to our staff’s insight into the nonprofit ecosystem. Reach out to your philanthropic advisor to start a conversation, and learn about organizations and options you may not have explored.


Q: How is the field of grants management evolving?

JS: I think across the philanthropic sector, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is definitely more at the forefront than it ever has been. We ask some application questions now about including the lived experiences and the voices of the populations that they serve. And we ask how they’re incorporating DEI principles within their internal operations and staffing, because we want to learn how organizations are working towards more equitable practices.

KK: There’s also more momentum now for participatory grant making. Not just involving community members in decision-making, but in everything from the design of a grant program, through helping decide what applications get funded, through helping us assess and evaluate the data. That’s one thing that we are working towards doing more at the Trust.

SP: With donor advised grants, the biggest change is the volume. DAFs nationally just have really experienced a huge boom. Five years ago when I started, the Trust was processing about 6,000 donor advised grants per year; now it’s over 10,000.

Q: What’s the best thing about your job?

SP: One of the best parts of my job is when [DAF] grant recipients call because they’ve received something unexpected. It means a lot to them, and they’re so thankful. Sometimes I’ll get an email, maybe with pictures, explaining how they’re using this donation. And it’s just wonderful.

JS: Every grant, every step of the way, we have been at least a little part of it. It’s really gratifying to see the whole process lead to something that’s really impactful for an organization and the people that it serves.

KK: It’s really a personal interaction that we have. We know the grant recipients by name, we talk on the phone and respond to emails regularly, fielding their questions about their payments, or who they can talk to because they have this new need that they’re trying to get funding for. So we have relationships with many of the grant recipients over the course of years, without ever meeting them face-to-face.

Today, we’re at a point where we’re going to be able to see, within a couple of years, really measurable outcomes from our funding, with the potential to significantly impact people’s lives. Helping to facilitate the learning process from our grants—how we learn from data, and use it to inform our decisions—is very exciting.