The difference between Grants and Initiatives

June 10, 2015

For years, the Iowa West Foundation has been known as a “Grantmaking” organization. Since 1994, we have awarded approximately $320 million in grants to hundreds of nonprofits in communities throughout southwest Iowa and eastern Nebraska.

In the past few years, in addition to awarding grants, we’ve begun to invest in what we call “initiatives.”

These initiatives have included Riverfront development, neighborhood revitalization in Council Bluffs, children’s mental health, an inter-connected trail systems throughout the Pottawattamie county and improvements to West Broadway.

So how are these initiatives different than grants? First, let’s talk about how they are the same.

Both grants and initiatives seek to meet needs of the community. Both require funding to meet those needs. And both seek specific outcomes upon implementation of that funding.

The difference is that grants require us to wait to be approached with a need in the community (capital improvement, program provision, operating support). They are responsive and target resources into existing service delivery models to get results. Typically, grants are not long-term solutions.

Initiatives are a zoomed out version of grants. They allow us to look at the big picture with the hope of finding a longer, collaborative solution to create an agreed-upon impact. Where there aren’t existing service delivery models in place, initiatives seek to partner with key organizations to transform the delivery of services, often by creating a new model. Instead of a wait and see approach, initiatives are proactive and involve ongoing conversations with community leaders and data-driven research to lead change.

Take the latest Iowa West Foundation initiative, Pottawattamie Promise, for example. We know that our county is lagging in the number of residents age 25 or older who have an associate’s degree or higher, both statewide and nationally, at only 28 percent. Moreover, in Iowa, more than 62 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary training or education by 2018. Rather than accepting this statistic for what it is and attempting to alleviate the need for higher education through existing channels, the Foundation sought to determine the factors that hinder students from pursuing and completing secondary education. Was it lack of financial aid? Was it because they failed math class? Was it because they didn’t live on campus?

We then designed a “pilot program” that we believe solves for many of the contributing factors for that statistic. When we try to solve a problem with a multitude of contributing factors by shifting the way we approach and fund it, we seek to create an entire systems change. These are often pilot projects so that they can be tweaked based on what the data show at the end of the pilot, with the goal of expansion always in sight.

When I say we, I mean we, the community leaders. The Iowa West Foundation is never alone in an initiative endeavor. Rather, we invite key partners to discuss an all-encompassing approach to issues that affect our community. To do this, we ask, what is currently available? What has worked in other similar-sized cities? Who needs to be at the table for this discussion? What is the most efficient and effective way to do this?

The Foundation’s community-based 2013 Strategic Plan called for us to become more proactive, rather than reactive. It also defined the role of the Foundation as more strategic, a community convener and a leader.

Initiatives allow us to fulfill that role.


featurebin_image.jpgPete Tulipana, President and CEO of the Iowa West Foundation

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