The Mittenthal Principle

Stephen D. Mittenthal, the former President of the Arizona Community Foundation, holds that a good grant achieves two purposes:

  • It should allow the grantee organization to deliver something valuable to its constituents or stakeholders; and
  • It should allow the grantee organization to become stronger so it can do its work better, cheaper, or smarter at its next opportunity.

Not every grant routinely achieves both purposes; actions that allow this must be built in from the beginning.  This is typically done through discussions between the foundation and applicant before the grant is even made.

Dr. Mittenthal taught me this principle while I did a site visit to the Arizona Community Foundation when it was a participant in C.S. Mott Foundation’s Community Foundations and Low-Income Neighborhoods Small Grants Program, and my organization at the time, Rainbow Research, Inc., was the evaluator.

Invoking the two bullet points above, Steve explained the virtues of a grant he’d just made  to a neighborhood organization to equip a home maintenance and gardening tool library to be used by its residents.  Following discussions with the recipient group, the grant also provided an opportunity for developing a formal inventory of residents’ skills with tools; this allowed the organization to position itself as able and willing to work with outside developers with eyes on this neighborhood adjacent to the airport.  Other grants he made followed the same pattern.

Another excellent practitioner of this principle was Marian Kane while she was President of the Maine Community Foundation.  Her program officers made a point of coaching nonprofits when they presented applications for funding, asking “How can you do this project in a way that can also strengthen your Board, or your fundraising practices, or your relations with county agencies, or your standing in the community?”

Funding a project alone gives the recipient organization little room to grow or deepen its roots; the money just flows through without sticking in ways that builds capacity for the future.

Working towards both purposes of the Mittenthal principle — delivery plus growth — allows much greater progress than focusing on either one alone, and adds to the sustainability of the recipient organization.

This was amply shown in the Ford Foundation’s Leadership Program for Community Foundations (see my previous blog), which had two purposes, (a) to allow participating community foundations to play a more meaningful leadership role in their communities on an issue of their choosing; and (b) to give them the pretext for increasing their unrestricted endowments by $1 million.  Working on these two purposes together had a surprising synergistic effort: working on the one enabled progress on the other.

I’m very pleased to honor Dr. Mittenthal, now the president of The Ellis Center for Educational Excellence, by naming this important principle after him.  I’ve described this two-fold principle of grantmaking many times in workshops and presentations over the years, and believe it deserves much wider notice and practice.

There’s no reason to think the principle’s applicability is solely with community foundations; any foundation can use it to good effect, as can any individual donor.

Nonprofit applicants can promote this for themselves by designing and proposing a project that not only delivers something worthwhile to those it serves, but also strengthens the organization’s infrastructure.  Pitching a project that way should increase the organization’s standing in the competition for funds, provide more results to talk about, and present itself subsequently as a more capable organization.

Steven E. Mayer / July 29, 2011