Funders, thank you for doing these 12 awesome things


Hi everyone, after talking to an ED of color who was on the verge of quitting the field after a horrible and demoralizing experience with a small grant that left her almost in tears, I started writing a post called “Funders, you are still very good looking, but your grant application process may be perpetuating inequity.” (It’s a working title).

That post will be published next Monday. I am trying to have a more balanced approach this year of not just pointing out weaknesses in our sector, but also highlighting awesome stuff that is going right. So while next week’s post will be critical of ineffective funding practices that disproportionately affect marginalized communities, this week’s post—written with help from the NWB Facebook community—will focus on examples of helpful things funders are doing.

Foundations, thank you for doing these things below. Or if you don’t do them, please start. We really appreciate it, because these things, as simple as some of them are, make it easier for us all to make the world better.

Holding info sessions and being thoughtful about them: We really appreciate it when funders hold info sessions when a new RFP is released. It’s great to get questions answered, because let’s face it, some of us won’t review the 30-page RFP until a week before the grant is due, and then we’ll fall asleep by page 3. It’s also nice to be able to meet you in person. Also, it’s great to see who else is applying, so that we can start thinking about collaborating with them…or failing that, finding ways to destroy them. Big thanks to the foundations that hold multiple sessions, and have them out in the community, and have great snacks that include at least one variety of olives.

Keeping everything simple: “I’m hugely appreciative of the ones who keep it simple–asking for narrative and budget thank you the end.” We really love foundations who don’t require upfront separate attachments for theory of change, logic model, questionnaires, flow charts, signature from the board chair, proof of insurance, resumes, full job descriptions, MOUs, letters of support, IQ test results, favorite casserole recipes, dental records, astrological readings for lead staff, and last will and testament. Also the ones that allow us to just use whatever budget format we have instead of having to translate it to the foundation’s format. This saves so much time and aggravation.

Having a clear timeline that you stick to: Says a colleague, “When is the LOI due? When will we know we can submit? When is the application due? When will we know if we are awarded a grant? And when will the check be sent? Having that spelled out in the grant information is so helpful. You’re not just sitting and wondering.” Thank you, foundations that have all of these things clear and written down and implemented as described.

Being approachable and accessible. Thanks to funding dynamics, program officers always seem so distant and unapproachable, like certain people on OK Cupid desert-279862_1280whom we can only stare at and daydream about. We are really appreciative of program officers who are down-to-earth, who answer phone calls, who are willing to meet, who genuinely want to build a relationship with us. Even when someone can’t help us, or it’s bad news on a grant decision, it’s just really nice when people call/email us back in a timely manner. It lessens the crippling existential crises that so often mark the funding process (“What is the meaning of life? Why am I doing this? If I am not funded, do I still exist?”)

Working as true partners and looking out for us: Says a colleague, “We reached out to the ED of a foundation when we were in his city. Not only did he agree to meet with us, he volunteered to read our LOI and give us feedback before we submitted it.” Another colleague writes, “My fave foundation meets with us first and has a long conversation about our capacity and organizational needs. Once we identify what our most pressing need is—software? Training? New hummus platters?—they invite us to develop a proposal around THAT. It’s truly focused on what YOU need most!” I’ve had program officers who said, “It seems like you didn’t calculate enough indirect expenses into your budget. You should increase it, and increase your ask.” We appreciate the funders who treat nonprofits like important partners, who are patient, kind, and supportive; you make our difficult work easier.

Gathering feedback, acting on it, and being transparent: Funders who take time to gather feedback from grantees, and then change their practices based on what they hear, are downright sexy. Says a colleague, “A couple months after being rejected by a small family foundation, we received a request to take a survey on their grant application process – website navigation, accessibility of program officer, whether the directions were clear and easy to follow, etc. It felt great to know that even though they couldn’t fund our program, they still valued our opinion.” You get extra points if you publish these findings along with a plan for changing priorities and practices based on input.

Giving honest feedback: “I am always encouraged when a program officer gives you an honest appraisal of why your application was rejected.” Like with job interviews, it’s very helpful to get genuine, honest feedback, instead of the usual, “We had a lot of candidates, we had to choose the one who had the best matching qualifications.” That may be true, but I realize that just sounds like, “We have a lot of liabilities, and therefore we can’t give you any actual useful feedback at all. You will die haunted by not knowing what you could have done better.”

Respecting our time: I recently participated in a focus group for a project a foundation was doing. The 90-minute focus group was on the phone to save everyone’s time, and at the end every participant got $150 as a donation to their organization. That’s not a lot of money, but it’s a really thoughtful gesture that shows the foundation is valuing our time. Actually, for us small nonprofits, that is a lot of money. I bought two metal filing cabinets with that money. New ones. Not rusty ones from Craigslist that require tetanus shots before using.

Introducing us to other funders: “Our agency has provided legal representation for unaccompanied minors from Central America for over ten years. Last year of course there were unprecedented numbers of children. Our numbers of kids helped shot up with no increase in resources. One local Foundation hosted an event where we were able to present to multiple foundations simultaneously. We raised enough money to hire a lawyer dedicated to do those cases.” Funders know other funders. Huge thanks to those who take time to make introductions or to encourage their colleagues to meet with organizations that may align with their priorities.

Developing relationships with program staff: “I recall a funder who asked for a site visit and meeting. He said something like ‘…you’re great to talk to (I was the development officer) but I would like to sit with the program staff who are directly facing your clients.’ That was refreshing and the meeting and outcomes were very positive for agency.” Thank you, foundations that take time to understand all facets of an organization and get to know staff besides just the ED; this is also very strategic, as, unfortunately, EDs don’t last long.

Trusting us nonprofits and allowing us to do our jobs: Funders who have simple grant report requirements, who don’t make us account for every staple that their specific dollars paid for, who streamline processes, who don’t make us waste time that should be spent fulfilling our missions—thank you. We appreciate it “when a foundation says, We’re not going to tell you how to do your job–and mean it!”

Providing multi-year, general operating funds: Of course, no list of awesome foundation practices will be complete without recognizing foundations that provide multi-year general operating funds, the holy grail of funding and the most effective way to allow nonprofit staff to focus our time on our missions instead of counting pennies and tearing out our hair. These funders, I’ve noticed, tend to not get a lot of recognition. If your foundation provides multi-year gen-op, you are awesome; in fact, you are the wind beneath our wings. Here, listen to the classic song, because that’s how we feel about you, even if we don’t say it enough.

There are lots of other things that funders are doing that we should recognize. Please put your thoughts in the comment section. Next week, we tackle inequity in the grant application process.

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Oh, one more thing: UNICORN CARDS! I’ve ordered some more unicorn self-care business cards. They say “card-carrying nonprofit unicorn” on one side, and has the Unicorn Mantra on the other. Send a self-address-stamped-envelope to Vu Le, Chief Unicorn, 3700 S. Hudson St., Unit C, Seattle, WA 98118 and I’ll send you back three. They’re free, until I run out again.

  • Shannon

    Yes, yes, yes! I’m all for simplicity, but I understand some funders’ needs for in-depth reporting, and in those cases, openness also really goes a long way. I’m working on a rather onerous grant report right now but it’s made so much easier by the fact that this foundation has accessible program officers, meets with us and solicits feedback, and I know they will actually read the complicated metrics they’re asking for.

  • Lauren Rapp

    I think another step that could simplify things for funders and fundees is to request the basics during the application but include the specific items needed if the award is granted. That way the application is streamlined, and the organization can get a look into the future of the collaboration.

  • Ann Tydeman-Solomon

    Thanks for the positive start to the week – it’s much needed since we’re in the middle of one of those application formats you’ll be talking about next week!
    I appreciate it when foundation program officers will have a conversation with you on the phone and tell you honestly when your org is not a fit for them. Saves all the angst of writing a proposal and then getting turned down.

  • Stacy Ashton

    For a while Canada’s Status of Women had blueprint funding, which was a multi year targeted grant that included a funded phase for program development. Meaning you were funded while you worked with the people you were going to serve and other organizations to develop the best localized version of the program, and then you were funded to implement it. Major awesome points.

  • Stacy Ashton

    Another positive that started negative. I write a bunch of proposals for various groups in my city to get small city grants ($5000 max). Someone decided to increase a 3 page application to 14 pages plus appendices plus include a CD or jump drive with a copy of your proposal.

    I had 5 proposals to write, 4 pro bono.

    I know my city council and mayors so I very professionally yelled and sobbed at/in the general direction of the ones I know best, and wrote a two-page blistering review of the new process to the council as a whole.

    They changed the form back, and called a meeting for all festival planners to work out a better application process, since festival grants had been the most onerous (eg we were asked to track down and include in our budgets what the CITY’S costs would be for closing a street, security, clean up, etc, and the only way provided to do so was to call city staff in each department and get quotes).

    Ended up with a better process and the city doing its own internal math.

    Yay my city!

  • Laura Hines

    Yes!! I completely agree with many of these examples. Funders that require organizations to use different financial reporting are a pet peeve of mine. It can take a long time to segment revenue and expenses in totally different categories; time that could be used in so many more productive ways! And three cheers for multi-year, general ops grants!

  • Jennifer B. Lyle

    Recently I saw Lateefah Simon speak at an event. Something that I really appreciate her saying was, ” if Cesar, Martin, and Ella Baker came to you for funding support, would you ask for their theory of change, logic model and evaluation metrics?” I understand organizing the direction of our work and mission, but good work does get done without memorizing a theory of change.

  • Tammi Edwards

    I gotta talk about character limits. I love applications that don’t require them. I do understand cutting to the chase, getting to the point and avoiding all the fluff. But some funders should take into consideration the questions they are asking and look realistically at how many characters it takes to answer.

  • Stephen P.

    So Funders that give you lots of money and assistance and ask for little in return are the best? Sounds like a one-way street to me. Are there Funders who are tough but fair? Who drive your organization to step-up it’s game?

    • bex0r

      Unfortunately competition for very limited funding dollars is the driving force behind the culture of non-profits. Those not willing (or able) to jump through the hoops don’t get the awards. This unfairly penalizes less privileged or affluent groups. By lowering some of the barriers to participation as well as being more transparent in their processes, funders would be actively dismantling some of the systemic inequalities they perpetuate.

  • Pia Infante

    Thanks for this list, Vu, so resonant with what my organization is doing that we re-posted:

  • verucaamish

    The partnership piece is SOOOO important. Program Officers who can have the straight talk with you is really useful. When I had a trusting relationship with my program officer, she was instrumental in helping me untie programmatic knots. That create a special kind of transparency on both ends. For a fellowship that I was running, my program officer gave me great information about where the foundation was headed in the next three years and how our fellowship could align with that direction. It really made my work easier because I wasn’t trying to divine hidden agendas and sources of stress.