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Grantmaking Without Grandiosity: It’s About Them

Profile photo of Peter Tavernise

The author, a seasoned philanthropic leader, shares a lesson he learned early in his career about one of the most important qualities of a successful grantmaker.

Who taught you one of the best lessons you ever learned? Tell us a story about them and what they taught you.

One of my earliest mentors in our field made sure every new program officer understood that we were stewards of the resources entrusted to the Foundation, and that we needed to guard against a sense of creeping self-importance.

    “You need to understand, now that you are a grantmaker, you have told your last bad joke. Not one of your phone calls or emails will go unanswered. In fact, you will begin hearing from folks you haven’t spoken to in ages. No one will forget your name, and everyone will want to buy you lunch (but you should not accept, and you should always pay for your own meals). This and many other aspects of the role will begin to convince you that you are somehow important.
    “Program staff can sometimes get into a situation after a few years where they begin to think it’s their money; they lose sense of the fact that we are simply stewards of the resources. You need to guard against becoming self-important. There is no place for that here.”

This important lesson has stuck with me throughout the years and is one of the first things I share with new team members. We are entrusted with a role in grantmaking. We are here to facilitate a process of resources moving towards those working to bring good into the world. We accomplish this work most effectively from a posture of humility, listening, and common purpose.

There is enough broken about the power dynamics in the sector. No need to add to that with an inappropriate mindset. To fulfill our stewardship roles responsibly, we must commit to meeting grant seekers from that place of humility and servant leadership—and not from some misplaced sense of self-importance.



Peter Tavernise is the Executive Director of Cisco Foundation, and Director of Cisco Corporate Affairs, Public Benefit Investment. His specialties are corporate philanthropy, foundation operations and administration, corporate social responsibility, critical human needs grantmaking (food, shelter, water, disaster readiness and response), employee giving and volunteering, and nonprofit impact metrics and reporting.