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A grant is a gift with strings
Gifts and grants are often bundled together as "contributed income," but they draw from different relationships between giver and receiver.
When you come, bring your brown-
ness so we can be sure to please
the funders. Will you check this
box; we’re applying for a grant.
Do you have any poems that speak
to troubled teens? Bilingual is best.
Ada Limón, from “The Contract Says: We’d Like the Conversation to be Bilingual”
When we think and talk about “contributed income” in the nonprofit arts, we tend to include both gifts and grants. Neither would be considered “earned revenue,” no matter how hard you work to get the money. Both tend to be managed by the same staff (except in large organizations).
But there are important differences between gifts and grants – in how and from whom they’re requested, and what’s expected after they’re received. Those differences can get confused and conflated in the mad dash for money, which can lead to all kinds of awkward.
In its pure form, a gift is given without expectation of return.1 The funder gets nothing of significant value in exchange for their gift (acknowledgement and thanks are fine); sets no implementation requirements or performance outcomes; and owns, controls, or benefits from no part of the result. Donors can certainly restrict use of a gift to specific programs or projects. But they can’t control or direct its expenditure beyond those initial restrictions.
A grant, however, is a formal or official act of conferral, often with an expectation of specific action or outcome.2 The funder can benefit from the grant; can set specific policies, performance, and reporting goals in its execution; and can demand ownership or access rights to the work or its components.
In brief, a gift is a personal contribution to a cause or community, while a grant is an institutional contract for an outcome. Funding agencies, in many ways, use grants to outsource their mission.
Of course, the pure forms of gifts and grants are rarely observed in the wild. Rather, many individuals making gifts care deeply about what’s done with the money, and expect specific actions, outcomes, or decision-making access in return. And many institutions making grants care deeply about the creative, social, or civic work of the grantee, and strive to stay out of the way once the grant is conferred.
The sandtrap for both is requesting and receiving money without clear and shared expectations. And it’s often the arts manager’s job to avoid that trap.
If a donor is too hands-on and controlling after giving a gift, it’s the arts manager’s task to sustain the relationship while also setting boundaries. If a grantor is demanding more control or communication than their grant is worth, it’s the arts manager’s task to remind them that contracts have two parties who both negotiate the terms.
Of course, the best moment for these difficult conversations is before the money changes hands, not after. So ignore the proverb and look the gift (or grant) horse in the mouth.
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From the ArtsManaged Field Guide
Function of the Week: Gifts & Grants
Gifts & Grants involve attracting, securing, aligning, and retaining contributed resources (also called fundraising or development).
Framework of the Week: Connection Concern Capacity
Development consultant Kay Sprinkel Grace suggests three primary attributes of potential individual donors that should guide your strategy: connection (emotional), concern (intellectual), and capacity (financial).
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A “gift” in 15th-century law meant the “transference of property in a thing by one person to another, voluntarily and without any valuable consideration.” Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “gift, n.¹, sense I.2.a”, September 2023. https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/1101301035
A “grant” in 14th-century law meant an “authoritative bestowal or conferment of a privilege, right, or possession…by the act of an administrative body or of a person in control of a fund or the like.” Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “grant, n.¹, sense 3.a”, September 2023. https://doi.org/10.1093/OED/1198198390