7 Annoying things funders say, and what we wish they (you) would say instead


Kaziranga National Park reopens for visitorsHappy 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!

frustrated-woman-at-computer3. “We can’t meet with you because we’re spending the next two years in strategic planning”

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.”

6. “We prefer to give capacity building grants to larger nonprofits that already have capacity”fedup young man pulling funny face on white background

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 nonprofitwithballs@gmail.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.”

Related posts:

The Sustainability Question, why it is so annoying

The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildings, and White Walkers

The Site Visit: Uncomfortable, yet terrifying




10 thoughts on “7 Annoying things funders say, and what we wish they (you) would say instead

  1. Robin Carton

    As a recovering funder – these are truly annoying things that funders do say. Including, we are going to take a year off from funding and hold a “Listening Project” so we better understand what our community wants. Hmmm … I can answer that – money!

  2. Full Circle Foundation

    From a “funders” point of view and specifically to #7 – there is ALWAYS going to be “radio silence” when an NPO doesn’t take the time to research the foundations they’re contacting and then start their email (or letter) with “To whom it may concern” or “Dear Grantor”…

    1. Vu Le

      Fully noted, FCF, and understandable, and will go in the counter piece about annoying things that we nonprofits do. However, even a simple “Please contact us after you’ve looked through our website and researched our priorities, thanks” would send a clear message and help these nonprofits along.

      1. Stacy Ashton

        Here’s the thing: A “to whom it may concern” letter doesn’t mean the organization requesting funds is not worth pursuing. Again, this is the funder-NFP power dynamics at work. The funder has the $$, so “should” be the one courted and researched. The NFP, though, has the expertise and knowledge to do something actually effective with that money. Without NFPs doing the work, money is completely useless.

        What’s stopping a funder from taking all the “to whom it may concern” letters and researching the NFPs to see if they are doing the hard work on the ground, instead of investing their time researching funders? Publishers do this with their slush pile all the time; wade through the unsolicited submissions and pull out the next surprise best seller. Like Harry Potter.

        1. Full Circle Foundation

          Stacy – Sorry, but I have to respectfully disagree with you on the “funder-NFP power dynamics”. If every board member on our foundation didn’t have a full-time job OUTSIDE the foundation duties – then maybe it would be a great exercise to research all of the requests we get that are addressed “To whom it may concern”. It’s not a power struggle at all – to us it’s “due diligence”. It’s like the NPO that uses the “shotgun approach” to fund-raising – sending the exact same letter of interest to a myriad of foundations without researching whether the foundation’s they’re soliciting even support their type of services. A social service organization that provided educational resources to the families of pregnant teenagers should not be sending a grant request form to a foundation whose mission was saving elephants in Rwanda.

  3. corbin1994

    Say I have just submitted a request, well within the average grant range, to The Big Foundation with Lots of Money for a grant to feed starving hamsters in Ballard, hamsters who are direct descendants of the hamsters belonging to Ballard’s original fisherfolk. I have done this after researching TBFwLoM, looking closely at other grants funded by them, and even talking with the program officers at the foundation. I even have an advisory council consisting of descendants of Ballard’s orginal fisherfolk, who have shaped the proposal.

    Then, 6 months later, I get a letter turning down the request. “Sorry,” it says, “we are unable to fund your request because we are only able to fund projects that feed starving hamsters in Ballard, hamsters who are direct descendants of the hamsters belonging to Ballard’s original fisherfolk.” What the WHAT???
    Fine, tell me you didn’t like my use of the Oxford comma. Tell me our ED once jilted your sorority sister. Tell me there are no more starving hamsters in Ballard because you are feeding them all. WHATEVER. but please don’t tell me you can only fund EXACTLY what I have requested you fund at my organzation.
    PS – If I were a funder, and all the staff at a non-profit looked lke hamsters, I would just hand over ALL my money to them, forever

  4. Robin Carton

    One of the key points I always make to grantseekers is – do your homework. Do not send off proposals to foundations that do not fund in your arena. You will annoy the funder and … funders DO talk to each other. So then your organization’s name is mud in a number of circles. In addition – unless specifically prohibited – do call and talk to the program officer. You can get valuable insight into the process and feedback on whether you will be a good fit. Not to be trite but “program officers are people too” – and respond to positive interactions with applicants.

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