Happy summer, everyone. A colleague wrote me recently, saying “I just received an email from a well-known foundation (that supports us) mentioning that they ‘are all out of town all of this week for a conference in Hawaii.’ I just spent 2 months working my a** off on our annual event raising just $35,000…” She asked me to write about things that funders should never mention to folks working in the nonprofit world
Now, funders are awesome and play a very important and symbiotic role in the nonprofit ecosystem. It would be hard for us nonprofit egrets to do our work if the…uh…rain doesn’t fall and the…um….savannah grass is not green enough to feed the rhinoceroses who…uh…do whatever it is that rhinoceroses do in this metaphor, which made a lot more sense yesterday after I had several beers. But once in a while, likely inadvertently, funders say things that get on our nerves. I asked Nonprofit With Balls readers as well as all my ED friends to tell me what they wished funders would stop saying. Here are the top ones:
1. “XYZ organization always does blah blah. Have you tried doing it?”
Why it’s annoying: Usually XYZ organization has a bigger budget, more staff, or a completely different focus. Hearing this is like hearing, “Your older brother is taking classes at night to earn his MBA. Have you thought about doing that?” Sure, we all love suggestions about innovative stuff our friends in the field are doing, but this advice must come with deep familiarity of our organizations.
What we wish you would say: “XYZ organization did blah blah with their program and it was really cool. You have a similar program. If you are interested, I can connect you guys if you’re not connected already, and if you want to try what they’re doing, we may have some funding available to support that.”
2. “Why are there so many of you guys?”
Why it’s annoying: There are certainly instances where nonprofits should not be created, especially by people who don’t understand nonprofits and do stupid things like send used microwaves to Africa or something. However, it’s gotten to the point where people are annoyed at any new nonprofits. And heck, even existing ones. Having a diverse set of nonprofits in the field is important, as competition drives innovation, allows funders to choose the organizations that most align with their priorities and values, and fills in gaps in services. “If you and I can figure out how to use unicorn tears and cute bunnies to create world peace and curb climate change, then let us create our new nonprofit,” says my ED friend who is particularly annoyed by this.
What we wish you would say: You nonprofits are awesome! Here’s some money! Go, go rally your bunnies and make the world better!
Why it’s annoying: We nonprofits do strategic planning also, but we don’t go on hiatus. Imagine if clients emailed us and we say, “Sorry, but all our programs are closed while we do our strategic plan.” We know services are needed, so only in rare circumstances will a nonprofit close down shop for a year to do planning. But that’s what it feels like when a foundation does it.
What we wish you would say: “Sure, we’d love to meet. FYI, we’re in the midst of a strategic planning process, so priorities may change in two years. But there is funding still available this year and next for projects that align with our current priorities.”
4. “Have you considered merging with so-and-so organization?”
Why it’s annoying: The process for merging, at least in its current form, is long and complicated. It’s like getting married. You can’t just say, “Hey, have you considered marrying Bob from down the street?” It’s insulting to both parties. And actually, for the most part, yes, yes we have considered marrying Bob! And obviously we didn’t think it was the right move or the right time.
What we wish you would say: Hey, so-and-so organization and your org are both awesome. Let’s go to happy hour. First round on the Foundation!
5. “So, have you done a longitudinal study with a control group, broken down by gender, ethnicity, geographic boundaries, and astrological signs, to see if your program works?”
Why it’s annoying: This is a classic case of something people want to see without actually wanting to pay for: Evaluations, financial audits, robust fundraising strategies, advocacy work. These things are expensive and time-consuming. Most of us would actually love more rigorous scientific studies and evaluations done on our programs; however, good ones are not cheap, so someone needs to pay for them.
What we wish you would say: “This program is great. We have funding set aside to do a longitudinal study, with a control group, if you are interested.”
Why it’s annoying: It’s a Catch-22 that punches you in the throat. It’s like us nonprofits telling a client, “We only provide job-finding assistance to those who already have jobs, because it means you’re responsible enough to receive the assistance.” Or “We only provide children’s books to children who can already read, because otherwise how would they read those books?” (Such as “If You Give a Board Treasurer a Cookie, and other classic children’s books about nonprofits.”)
What we wish you would say: “We have different grants for nonprofits at different stages of their development. If you’re a smaller nonprofit, you may qualify for technical assistance as you pursue support from our foundation.”
7. “…..” [Radio silence]
Why it’s annoying: Worse than anything that a funder can say is when a funder doesn’t say anything. Seriously, there are times when I email or call funders multiple times and receive no response. The power dynamics is such that we nonprofits are usually on edge when communicating with funders. To face complete silence is to peer into the swirling darkness of the nonprofit existential void. It is awkward and soul-crushing.
What we wish you would say: Anything, even something like, “Sorry, I hate you and your organization. Your staff and board all look like hamsters. Never email me again.” Even that is better than no response at all.
I hope that’s helpful. We must all learn to work together, because egrets and rhinoceroses will both die or starvation if we do not cooperate during this period of climate change, which will cause a ripple effect on the savannah. So, uh, collective impact. Look, it’s 2am, that’s the best ending that I can come up with.
To be fair and balanced, any funder who wants to email me at email@example.com with annoying things that nonprofits say or do, I’ll write a counter piece called “Annoying things that nonprofit folks say to funders, and what we should say instead.”
PS: For the funders who are “all out of town for the week for a conference in Hawaii,” what you should have added was, “And we have realized how powerful bonding with colleagues in a tropical setting is. Thus, we are creating a new grant for small nonprofits that would like to send staff to conferences in Hawaii for professional development.”