My mom is an easy grader. She started as an early childhood educator with a pedagogy that centered kindness. About twenty years ago, she began teaching at the college level, preparing prospective teachers for a career working with young children. Every year, she would talk about her teaching students with a mix of delight and exasperation. Every year, there were some familiar characters. The one who was always late. The one who always asked for an extension. The one who always had an excuse for why her assignment wasn’t done. Each time my mom would tell us one of these stories, my reaction was “So, what did you do?” Her answer was, often, “Nothing.”

I would roll my eyes. The woman who taught me how to set limits with my own toddler did “nothing” when her college students failed to meet the course requirements? Shouldn’t they face the consequences of their actions? I basked in a sense of moral superiority that I would never be an easy grader like my mom. I would never let the kids off the hook, no matter what their excuses are. But, mom often knew more of the story. Karen’s homesick. Devon has a learning disability. Cherie has a long commute. Siobhan doesn’t have a stable place to live. Even when she didn’t know the story, she always gave them another chance. And another. And another. And sometimes they failed anyway because you can’t give an A to an assignment that’s never submitted. But most of the time, they pulled through.

Now, I have eight years of grantmaking under my belt. And before that, five years as an executive director. I have heard all kinds of breathless reasons for extension requests, late reports, missed emails. I have made all kinds of breathless apologies for tardiness, mistakes, a general state of existence. As an executive director, I remember working up the courage to ask my Hewlett Program Officer, Julie Fry, for an increase to our grant. It was a ten thousand dollar request – an amount that I came to learn was small to her but was significant to my organization. I wrote out my talking points. I practiced them in my office. I practiced them in the car. When I sat down for lunch with Julie, I made it through one round of pleasantries before getting down to business. Julie smiled, calmly said “Yes, we can do that.” Later, I found out she’d already budgeted the exact same increase to our grant renewal. She said, “Now, take a deep breath. What would you like to order?”

It costs us very little to be generous in philanthropy – with our time, our attention, and our money. And at the same time, I see peer funders often looking for ways not to give grants. Or, they look for ways to make the smallest possible grant for the largest possible impact. Maybe they’re afraid they’ll be taken for a ride. Maybe they’re afraid their grant funds won’t be put to good use. But foundation fears shouldn’t matter. In fact, they are dangerous. They can lead to under-funding projects, or over-burdening grantees with requirements in the name of accountability. As a grantee, a funder’s stinginess can foster a desire to be perfect: perfectly transparent, perfectly on budget, perfectly in alignment. It does not foster honesty or trust. It seems obvious, but I believe that in philanthropy, the default should be generosity. I leave the Hewlett Foundation an easier “grader” than when I came in. I might even be easier than my mom. And that sits just fine with me.