Unicorns Unite: A Fresh Take on the Keys to Grantmaking Success

In my work with grantmakers, there’s an ever-present tension between the “why” and the “way” - between the organization’s vision, mission, impact goals and values, and its practices and operational realities. I see how inspiring goals created by amazing people get muddied in the day-to-day processes of actually making grants. A commitment to quality grants becomes a convoluted due diligence checklist, or a desire to show impact adds a burden on grantees to collect yet more metrics, or a culture of close, informal grantee relationships morphs into a confusing and inconsistent grantee experience. As a result, we’re individually and collectively falling short of our potential for impact.

In my work with grantmakers, there’s an ever-present tension between the “why” and the “way” - between the organization’s vision, mission, impact goals and values, and its practices and operational realities.

I joined Grantbook almost four years ago because I wanted to do something about this problem. Most of my day-to-day work revolves around selecting, implementing and supporting technology systems, and I see how it both helps the situation and further entrenches existing, problematic practices. Over time, I’ve deepened my understanding of the challenges facing philanthropy as well as the promising practices that are offering a better way forward. As an organization, we’re actively pursuing ways that we can shed light on what is promising, and accelerate the adoption of these practices.

So when I heard about Unicorns Unite, by Jane Leu, Vu Le, and Jessamyn Shams-Lau, I was eager to get my hands on it and not disappointed. What I love about this book is the candid way it tackles the difficult topic of grantmaker/grantseeker relationships. Despite what you might imagine from the colourful illustrations and cute name, this book does not shy away from bluntly naming the many issues at play.

The front cover of "Unicorns Unite"
Unicorns Unite talks candidly about grantmaker/grantseeker relationships.

It would be easy to point fingers at who is to blame for these issues. This book preempts the blame game with an underlying message of unity: we are all “unicorns.” We all want to make the world a better place. Whether we’re a foundation, nonprofit (or consultant), that’s the bottom line of why we’re here. As humans it’s so tempting to put each other into boxes, but this can only lead to more division and less empathy.

As a change management coach, I know that once you have established a shared understanding of the need for change, the critical next step is to share a vision for a better future. Unicorns Unite lays it out:EPIC partnerships between nonprofits & foundations that tackle complex problems & achieve incredible feats of social change that enable the world to thrive.” Probably my favourite part of the book are the stories (“unicorn dreams”) of what these partnerships could look like. They pushed me to think bigger and more creatively about what could be possible if our practices were truly in service to the impact we are seeking.

The EPIC Partnership Framework from "Unicorns Unite"
EPIC stands for: Equally value all inputs, Prioritize needs of those we serve, Increase trust and empathy, and Commit to big, bold, and better through all-in teamwork.

The authors also understand that to help the sector change they don’t just need to capture your minds and hearts, but provide you with a path forward. The last section of the book is packed with activities that both grantmakers and grantseekers can use in their organizations to build buy-in and spark creative thinking around new ways of working.

So, grab the book and sign the manifesto! And most importantly, let’s keep talking and working together to make epic partnerships a reality.


Tierney Smith

Philanthropy Consultant

Change Management

Tierney helps clients craft their digital strategy, select right-sized technology tools, redesign processes and implement new systems. Her work style incorporates human-centric practices, change management, and an empathetic grantmaking approach. She leads Grantbook's change management coaching practice.

Previously, Tierney worked at TechSoup Canada to provide nonprofits with access to low-cost technology and educational resources. She has also worked as a software developer and project manager in the corporate sector. She has a degree in Software Engineering from the University of Waterloo.