Demystifying Our Discretionary Awards

One of the great gifts of serving the Kenneth Rainin Foundation is access to a discretionary awards fund. These funds help to diversify our grantmaking and enhance our responsiveness to community needs. Our discretionary awards program differs from the Foundation’s core program grants in Arts, Education and Health because it does not invite applications or unsolicited proposals.

According to the National Center of Family Philanthropy, roughly half of family foundations make discretionary awards, but the reasons for doing so may differ. One way we use them is to explore avenues that may fall outside of our core giving areas and approaches. These awards can be a creative tool to help us stay on the cutting edge, and at the same time, they can inform the way we think about our evolving core programs.

Over the years, the Foundation has received inquiries about our discretionary awards because it can be confusing when someone spots a departure from our core grantmaking. The Foundation strives to be transparent in our efforts, so to distinguish between our two types of grantmaking, we are introducing a discretionary award logo. This new logo, which is visually distinct from the logo used by our core program grantees, comes with communications guidelines and downloadable logo files.

Our discretionary awards allow designated individuals within the Foundation to direct a grant to a chosen nonprofit organization. Over the years, these awards have supported a range of projects, including documentary and narrative film, food justice, education, building restoration, medical research, and much more. As our roster of discretionary awards has grown, we have been paying attention to where these funds are going, and looking for trends and opportunities to leverage our core program grants.

Photo credit: Yale News

Photo credit: Yale News

For example, in 2014 I gave a discretionary award to Dr. Stephen Waxman at Yale to help fund the purchase of a multi-electrode instrument that would facilitate his work in developing personalized treatments for chronic pain, a condition that affects an estimated 100 million people in the United States. Because my wife suffers chronic pain, I am keenly aware of the array of current treatments that often involve a long and frustrating trial-and-error approach with drugs, including prescription opioids that carry the risk of abuse and addiction. The Yale researchers applied molecular modeling and multi-electrode array technology to find the most effective drug treatment plan for two patients, guided by the exact location of the mutation in each patient’s genome. The researchers then conducted a double-blind, placebo-controlled study to assess the effect of the placebo or the drug carbamazepine on the patients’ pain perception and neural activity. The results showed that it is possible to use genomics and molecular modeling to guide pain treatment. This is a significant step toward transforming pain treatment from trial and error to a precision individualized approach. Pain is a significant symptom for many people suffering with Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). In this case, because IBD is the primary focus of our core Health program, the discretionary award was complementary to our programmatic work. My expectation in supporting this particular project was that not only would this research find its way to ease people’s pain, but that it may eventually inform the development of personalized treatments for IBD.

I hope this post is helpful to understanding our discretionary awards and how they differ from our core grants. While we do not invite applications or unsolicited proposals for discretionary awards, we invite you to explore our core program grants in Arts, Education and Health. The Rainin Foundation has been fortunate to support many talented grantees through our all of our programs. We will continue to invest in innovative ideas and projects that will help to dramatically improve people’s lives.

If you have feedback about our work or this post, please contact us.


Jennifer Rainin, PhD

Jennifer Rainin, PhD

Chief Executive Officer

Jen has served as CEO of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation since its public launch in 2009. Under Jen’s leadership, the Foundation has adopted a targeted approach to grantmaking, expanding and developing several major initiatives in the arts, education and health. Read more.

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