Funding in Emerging Fields Lessons from a Large U.S. Foundation

The Context


  • Large, U.S. based foundation, funds internationally and domestically
  • Supports work in many fields and geographic regions under broad priority areas; believes in “working through grantees” rather than pursuing goals of its own devising; often supports “systemic” initiatives to build or strengthen a field
  • Willing to fund organizations and projects over the long term

Field or Community

  • Electronic media policy, a new and largely undefined field
  • Nonprofits working in the field tend to be new and growing
  • Many nonprofits in the field are unfamiliar with how foundations work other funders
  • No other major funders in the field

The Strategy


  • Seed the field with grants to organizations that might eventually anchor it, especially those with promising leadership
  • Bring organizations together to develop a network
  • Educate grantees about how foundations work
  • Build support for the field inside the foundation by showcasing developments that are relevant to colleagues’ work

Exit and Beyond

  • Make a few large awards to organizations with the capacity or potential to serve as intermediaries
  • Increase the number of funders by enabling some of those intermediaries to serve as regranters

Lessons and Advice

Promote the field inside the foundation. “A third of my time was spent with program officers at my own foundation, trying to educate them about this field or trying to find new support for it. Instead of just doing my thing in my silo and being deep but not broad, I tried to find funding partners in other programs so that knowledge could get spread or embedded in different areas and lines of work.”

Make sure grantees know how foundations operate. “To prepare grantees [for my own departure], it wasn’t enough to tell them, ‘You’re going to get a new program officer.’ I felt I had to say, ‘Look, this is how the field of philanthropy works. The institutional constraints pull people in different ways. If you want to continue your work, you’re going to have to understand this sector of people from whom you’re trying to get money.’”

Find the emerging leaders in the field and put them in a position to sustain it. “I tried to figure out who could become the strong intermediary leaders so we could eventually provide them with large grants and let them re-grant the money. And we eventually did that.”


About the author(s)

Senior Partner
The Giving Practice