Last week, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wrote about atoning for grantseeking transgressions. In that post, I promised to post this week about grantmaking transgressions, and immediately post-Yom Kippur, I’m particularly motivated to keep my promises. So here it is: atoning for grantmaking transgressions.
As indicated in last week’s post, one of the unique elements of Yom Kippur is a type of communal atonement. Many of the prayers recited are in first person plural, ways "we" have transgressed, rather than ways "I" have transgressed.
I offer the following grantwriting transgressions we, a community of grantmakers, may have made in the past year. Note: atonement is only meaningful when it is accompanied by a good faith promise to do better in the coming year, to not repeat the mistakes and transgressions of the past year.
Again, in no particular order:
- We have been unclear. While grantees and applicants have a responsibility to ensure that their organization and programs are a good fit with the foundation’s priorities before applying, the foundation must help that process by making its priorities clear. When a prospective grantee visits your website or reads your annual report, if you don’t have a website – and why don’t you have a website? Even if you don’t have – or don’t want - an online application, you can still help your grantees by putting together a very simple website (it can even be one page). But I digress. When a prospective grantee visits your website, can they easily find clear information about:
- Your priorities
- What types of organizations and projects you will consider funding (organization type, size, location, issue area, types of grants/requests)
- What types of organizations and projects you will not consider funding
- What information should be submitted for a grant request
- To Whom
- In what format
- What your deadlines are
- When they can expect to hear something back from you – how long does it take for a request to be considered? If a grant is awarded, how long does it take from the date the decision is made until the grant funds are in the grantee’s hands?
- What are the reporting requirements for awarded grants
- How the applicant can get questions answered in the application process
- Your preferred initial form of communication (should applicants talk to a program officer? Submit an LOI if they meet the basic eligibility requirements? Take an online eligibility quiz?)
- We have increased the full cost of our grants by asking for information we don’t need. Seeking grants is costly. Nonprofits spend a tremendous amount of time (read: money that could be spent on other mission-related activities) doing it. The Center for Effective Philanthropy has said that 13% of every foundation grant dollar is spent administering the grants. 13%. That’s $6B across the sector. And the breakdown of that 13% is roughly 1.5% foundation expenditures, 11.5% nonprofit expenditures. Foundations can help that.
- Take the time at least every other year to review your LOI, proposal, and report forms and processes. What information are you requesting from your applicants and grantees?
- For each piece of information, ask yourself, “How are we using this information?” If the answer is, “We aren’t,” or “I’m not sure,” get rid of it. It will save your applicants and grantees time. Incidentally, it will also save you time, since you and your staff, board, and reviewers will not have to read information that is extraneous to your decision-making process.
- Next, for each piece of information, ask yourself
- We have not actively encouraged our grantees to talk about failure, and we have therefore collectively not learned from it. Not every project is going to be successful. Even the most impactful and well-run organizations will have some initiatives that will not work. If a grant has not gone well, will your grantees tell you about what went wrong? Will they really? Many (even most) nonprofits fear sharing failures with foundations. Their concern is their perception that foundations only fund successful programs. If you’ve funded them once, they really really really want you to fund them again. What if their admission that something didn’t go perfectly discourages you from funding them again? Failures in programs and initiatives (even organizations as a whole) create amazing learning opportunities, not only for the organization but for you as the funder and for the field as a whole. Assuming that you fund several organizations that work on similar issues – and talk to other foundations that fund similar issues – you’re uniquely positioned to learn from one project’s failures and shortcomings and shorten the learning curve for others so that they don’t have to make the same mistakes. But you need to get an honest assessment from your grantees of what worked and what didn’t. This isn’t easy, given the concern that many nonprofits feel about sharing less-than-stellar results. Encourage your grantees to talk about failures. Reward them for doing so by funding them again – and by helping the issue that they’re working on by sharing information productively and broadly.
- We have been unwilling to take risks. It makes a ton of sense of invest in things that work. But there are a lot of new, innovative, potentially world-changing ideas and organizations out there. And they’re having a hard time getting funding, particularly because they’re new. They don’t have a track record, which clearly makes them a riskier investment. But with higher risk also comes the potential for higher reward. Some of these unproven new ideas will radically improve whatever issue they’re dedicated to tackling. And we’ll never know their full potential unless they get some support. I’m not advocating turning away from successful organizations and programs, but rather trying to push beyond the comfort zone of only investing in things you’ve invested in previously. It doesn’t have to be a lot. Maybe 5% of your grants next year could be to organizations under two years old? Maybe even under a year old? And maybe you could connect them with other resources (knowledge, people, potentially other funders even?) to help set them up for success? You may “lose” that money. But you may invest in something world-changing.
Feel free to add your own grantmaking transgressions in the comments.