7 annoying things nonprofits do and say that get on funders’ nerves

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irritatedHappy Monday, everyone. Last week, I wrote about annoying things that funders say to us nonprofits. Now, I want to stress again that funders and fundees are in symbiotic relationship. Like those ants that live on that one tree. Or those billions of probiotic bacteria that thrive in a healthy stomach. Nonprofits cannot do our work without funding, and funders can’t do their work without nonprofits. And no one can do their work without a healthy stomach, which is why all of us—funders and NPOs—should eat more yogurt and kimchi.

Anyway, after last week’s post, I got emails from a few funders who wanted to point out that nonprofits say and do annoying things also. At this point, you may have spewed coffee at your computer screen in shock and indignation. We nonprofits are unicorns! We never do anything annoying! Well, here are some things I was asked to mention. Let’s hear our funding friends out. And let’s keep in mind that I am only the messenger here. Like Shakira in those Activia probiotic yogurt commercials, but maybe slightly less attractive.

  1. “So, what do you fund? What’s your process? What geographic area? Who should I talk to? What is your grant cycle?”

Why it’s annoying to funders: All this information is on any decent foundation’s website. If you ask a question that could be easily found online, you might as well grab a red marker, draw a big A on your forehead for Amateur, and abandon civilization to live among woodland animals.

What you should say instead: “I have thoroughly reviewed the foundation’s website as well as the RFP and have a few questions to which I could not find the answer; would you mind if I float them by you, kind sir or madam?”

  1. “I know the application said black 12 point font in Times New Roman, but I thought it would be more whimsical to use 16-point Boogiewoogiehmk Bold in purple.”

Why it’s annoying to funders: Uniform formatting allow proposal reviewers to focus on content across hundreds of applications so that everyone has an equal chance of being rejected. Not following directions indicates that you either didn’t read the instructions, which shows that you are incompetent, or you read them and chose to ignore them, which means you are boorish.

What you should do instead: Just follow the directions. Apparently funders really hate the Boogiewoogiehmk Bold font. I know from experience. And forget homemade paper; that gets you nowhere.

  1. “Yes, our funding need is EXACTLY what the maximum amount of your funding range is and not more or less.”

Why it’s annoying to funders: It seems disingenuous that we always ask for whatever the maximum amount in the range is. Which may be why some funders are reluctant to reveal their range. “Don’t inflate your budget,” said a funder in an email to me in anticipation of this post. Funders have innate BS-detector.

What you should say or do instead: Be frank and honest with funders on the budget and don’t be too greedy. Funders should understand, however, that since almost no funder will fund 100% of a project, we will usually target whatever the ceiling of the grant is. I mean, if a project costs $100K, and a foundation’s range is $5K to $20K, then most of us nonprofits will ask for $20K. But if your project costs $100K, and you’ve already raised $75K, and a foundation’s range is $25K to 50K, don’t inflate your budget and then ask for $50K.

  1. “Yes, we understood that was a one-time grant. We’d like to request another one-time grant. But it’s for a completely different set of work on this same project.”

Why it’s annoying to funders: It seems some nonprofits don’t understand that meaning of the term “one-year” and so they try to ask for renewals.

What you should say or do instead: “We would like to do this additional work that we sincerely think is quite different from the work we did under the first grant.” That was verbatim from a funder. I think the point is that funders are willing to consider support other projects if they are significantly different than what was supported in the first grant they gave you.  

I know, I know—I can feel some of you bristling at funders’ preference for one-year grants, which forces us nonprofits to spend so much energy fundraising instead of implementing and improving programs, and for newer and sexier programs at the peril of tried-and-true ones. We’ll continue to discuss the weaknesses of this system, but until then:

  1. “You don’t understand the challenges we face as a nonprofit, such as dealing with a crazy board.”

meetingsWhy it’s annoying to funders: Many funders are actually nonprofits themselves, and most have boards or board-like entities governing their priorities and strategies. So yes, many do understand some of the challenges we face, and I have met lots of amazing program officers get it and who too are fighting for general operating funds, multi-year grants, more trusts in nonprofits, 80’s-themed funder-fundee mixers, etc.

What you should say or do instead: Cut them some slack, all right? Program officers have restrictions and challenges too. It’s not all bunnies and unicorns all the time. They too must herd cats. One local foundation in Seattle does have ducklings in its courtyard, though, but that’s a very rare exception.

  1. “So…uh…we spent 25% of the budget on an entirely different project, and some of it also went to another organization, and we didn’t realize we needed to tell you.”

Why it’s annoying to funders: The basis of any good relationship is trust and communication and decent personal hygiene, and a funding relationship is no exception. Funders trust NPOs to do what we agreed to. Spending significant funds on something not within the grant agreement violates this trust. It is understandable that not everything always goes according to plan, and that’s why communication is important.

What you should say or do instead: “In the moment, we felt like we needed to make these adjustments and forgot the requirements in our grant agreement. We are very sorry. Let’s discuss what happened. We won’t make this mistake in the future.” And make sure to put on deodorant during your meeting.

  1. “…” [Radio silence, except when NPOs need funds]

Why it’s annoying to funders: Funders are people too, all right? (Intelligent, attractive people with impeccable sartorial style, I might add). As such, keeping in communication and building relationship is important. “This year we funded 43 programs representing 27 nonprofits,” a funder wrote me, “Only ten thanked us…” What? Only 10 out of 27 nonprofits? Those 17 who didn’t acknowledge the grants should draw the scarlet A on their foreheads and live among woodland critters also.

What you should do or say instead: Thank funders for funding your organization, and keep them updated of your progress. We all need to appreciate one another more, because all of us have the same goal of making the world better.

All right, I hope that was helpful. Please add any rebuttals or additional feedback in the comment section. I want to end by saying that the nonprofit funding system is not perfect, but it’s the one we have right now, and funders and nonprofits must learn to work together as equal partners, and as equal partners, we will get on each other’s nerves from time to time, but our goals are the same, and that is to bring unicorns back to—

OMG, the latest season of Naked and Afraid just started! They’re naked and afraid in the wilderness in Namibia! Talk to you next week!

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Here, read this related stuff:

Nonprofit’s ultimate outcome: Bringing unicorns back to the world

How to charm your program officer and have the best site visit ever!

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  • Javier

    Always great to get feedback about the annoying/unprofessional things NPOs sometimes do with funders. Working at an NPO, the last post was more entertaining, but this post is much more useful. Thanks!

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      Thanks, Javier. I’m glad someone finds these ramblings useful :)

  • http://bicyclemeditations.org Claire

    So, I am curious. We received a $5000 grant for something, and we only spent $4500 of it on what the funder approved. We had $500 left over. I wrote an email to the funder saying, “hey, we have $500 left over, and we’d like to spend it on this activity, which is closely related to what you funded. Is that OK?” Radio silence. I leave a voice mail. Radio silence. A month later, I leave another email/voice mail. No reply.

    Communication is a two-way street, funders. Maybe $500 is chump change to you, but it’s a big pile of dough to us. At what point do we get to spend the $500? Or are we supposed to mail a check back to them? (say it ain’t so!!!)

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      Claire, I usually send a “time-bound” email, such as “Please let us know by (two weeks’ time) if you have any objections to us spending this leftover money on blah blah.” At this point, you’ve done your due diligence. You should spend it on furthering the mission.

  • http://www.fisherhousevaps.org Lorraine

    That last one really surprised me. I am in touch all the time with the “little guys” who support us but never really think about connecting with the big guys. Always figured they were too big to be bothered. Gonna have to rethink my ‘engagement’ plan.

    • http://nonprofitiwithballs.com/ Vu Le

      The big guys need love too.

  • Mary Wiese

    I cannot read this on my laptop, but I can read it on my phone? Not sure why…