A Corporate Perspective on GMN

I am thrilled to see the number of corporate members of GMN is growing. The energy at the annual conference is amazing – we have so much to share with and learn from each other – and you can actually see and feel that excitement.  So many of us don’t even know what we don’t know – but, with a strengthening network of corporate philanthropy peers, there is a world of opportunity that awaits us to learn and grow together.

I entered the world of philanthropy much like many of my grantmaking peers – by accident. In fact, I often say that I tripped my way into this world when, in 2003, I was offered a position in the Community Affairs department of Mutual of Omaha.  The idea of working with professionals whose jobs were to do “good stuff” in the community was exciting to me.  So I jumped at the chance — without a clue of what was ahead of me.

I should start off by admitting that I’m a structure junkie.  I thrive when there is a structure that defines the Who, What, When, Where and Why – especially the Why we do what we do.  When structure doesn’t exist, it is my instinct to find a way to build that structure.  Keep this in mind as you continue reading…

One of my first tasks in my new job was to read through grant requests from local nonprofit organizations and present my reactions to the requests.  These grant requests, I kid you not, were reams of paper.  At the time, grant decisions were made by a committee of company executives. There was no definitive focus for funding and there certainly wasn’t a required format for applications for support. This was beyond evident as I sifted through the mountains of paper that made up these requests.

Along with the volume of paper, there were many mysteries in these grant requests. The applicants seemed to dance around what they were asking for, allowing me to come to whatever conclusion I landed on. They hid the ask amount DEEP within the mountain of paper and often were not clear in exactly WHAT was to be funded. At the end of my first grant review exercise, I was exhausted, overwhelmed — and just wanted some structure!

Fast forward to 2005, when our team established the Mutual of Omaha Foundation. Around the middle of that year, I stumbled upon the Grants Managers Network website.  This became a bit of an obsession for me, because after 2 years on the job I had finally found people who understood my struggles!  This became my Zen place because these were people who loved the concept of structure as much than I did! Through this network, I heard about a training opportunity in Los Angeles hosted by Grand Valley State University.  I was SO excited for my very first formal training on grantmaking. I began to lovingly call it “Grantmaking Bootcamp.”  So, there I was. In a big city – in a classroom with very experienced foundation staff members – and I quickly realized that I had so much to learn.

The content of this training was very rich. I will never forget one particular moment of this class – when the instructor asked the class how many in the room required a grant agreement. All but one hand was raised…and that one hand was mine.  I was embarrassed and mortified – but it was a pivotal moment for me.  I realized that we had actually only been through one grant cycle as a foundation and that we had a lot to learn in order to put effective structure and practices in place.  I also realized that there was an abundance of knowledge surrounding me in that room  and  I needed to harness that knowledge, learn from it, appreciate it and to be okay with saying, “I don’t know. Can you help me?”

Upon my return to Omaha, I reached out to the peers I had just spent 4 days with in Los Angeles, and also  posted questions on the GMN discussion board…asking for help with grant agreements and policies associated with grantmaking. The response was overwhelming. I received email after email with templates of various agreements, policies guiding the use of the agreements, grantmaking policies and words of encouragement to reach out if I had any other questions.  What a magical world I had discovered – a world where individuals reached across sectors and helped each other!!!

During my 11 years of connectivity to GMN, I can say without reservation that it has been and continues to be my “go to” resource.  I have been able to forge a path for my career that I honestly do not believe would have been possible without the knowledge I gleaned from this network.  I have experienced three promotions over that time and am now the Community Programs Manager.   I am knowledgeable about grant practices and have spent much of the last 4 of 5 years really trying to understand the uniqueness that is the practice of corporate philanthropy.

In a nutshell, corporate philanthropy is just plain different. It’s different for those of us who are with new foundations. Some of us don’t have the luxury of the budgets of some of our family foundation peers. For those of us who are pass-through foundations, we don’t have the luxury of assets to fall back on. For many of us, there is no guarantee of support by our major or ONLY donor (the corporation). Our connectivity to the corporation creates scary challenges tied to self-dealing and conflicts of interest.  We’re different – and we don’t always immediately see ourselves in the traditional training on grantmaking practices. But GMN provides a community of common ground and hope for the future of our sector.

As more and more corporate giving professionals come into the fold of the GMN membership, the breadth and depth of knowledge, skills and experience of this membership also grows.  I’d love to see the number of corporate members and the content of conversation about corporate giving skyrocket through the GMN conference, discussion boards and educational offerings.  There’s no need to reinvent the wheel and there’s no need to feel alone in this work.  We MUST capitalize on these valuable resources that are available at our fingertips – and we must support each other and learn from each other as we work daily to make a difference in our communities.



Kim Armstrong

Kim Armstrong is Community Programs Manager at the Mutual of Omaha Foundation in Omaha, Nebr. She is a current member of GMN's Board of Directors.

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