Grantmaking. The name alone is the stuff of grad student dreams: oh, to be the decider of fates, the arbiter of worthiness, endowing hard work with ribbon-wrapped piles of cash! Having labored through the grant writing side, whether on an NSF fellowship application or a few paragraphs in a PI’s R01, we grad students may envision truly greener grass on the other side of the grant fence. To learn about the reality of a grantmaking career, I met with an alumnus of my high school who has worked in both corporate and nonprofit grantmaking.

Grantmaking, I learned, is not a walk in a money-filled park, but rather a profession with heavy responsibilities and high expectations. The woman I spoke with worked first in the kind of nonprofit that must raise funds before making grants, then in the corporate giving side, before moving into a position managing grants for the kind of independent foundation that has no shortage of funding.

Each presented its own difficulties. Fundraising to enable grants means constantly coming up with more effective and creative ways to ask for money. On the other hand, foundations are legally obligated to give away a certain percentage of their endowment each year, so a sudden influx of cash can present its own distribution challenges – or as The Notorious BIG so succinctly put it in his mid-90s rap classic, mo’ money mo’ problems.

Whatever the source of the funding, grantmakers are charged with allocating it to projects that serve their stated mission. Grantmakers select projects with the hope that each will be successful, but evaluating a grant’s impact can be a lot more complicated than just a bottom line – just how much is a new clean burning stove worth? How will an innovative preschool program affect lifetime earning potential? Does the vaccine deployment reach enough people to be effective? Smart metrics are crucial to evaluating grantmaking success.

Now for some details: her responsibilities as a grant manager included researching the grantee organizations, working with the legal team to structure the grant, overseeing the logistics of the grant implementation, and owning the management of an often complex grant schedule.  Working with people who are passionately focused on serving a mission often resulted in a high intensity environment, and long days were not uncommon when a deadline loomed.

Like many careers I’ve written about, grantmaking uses a mix of relationship skills and problem solving abilities. Success requires understanding the big picture while also executing the logistical details. While her background is in human biology, entrance to the grantmaking field is not limited to a particular academic path. The grantmakers profiled in this short video, for example, come from academia, law, and the business sector.

One final consideration: grantmaking can be a very fulfilling career for those seeking to serve a mission; however, work at the funding level is a step removed from the work of executing the project, and that may prove frustrating for some. Check out the Links page to learn more about careers in grantmaking and see if it could be a good fit for you.