Foundations, how aggravating is your grantmaking process? Use this checklist to find out!


[Image description: A from-the-waist-up image of a red plastic robot-looking toy. Update: It may be a Blockhead from Gumby. It has a square head, two googly round eyes that are looking down, a round yellow nose, and a yellow line shaped into a frown. The robot has two arms raised up to the sides of its head. The background is grayish blue.]

As we roll into 2017, there have been lots of articles about how philanthropy must adapt, including my post urging funders to increase payout and fund advocacy efforts, as well as this piece on moving away from “charity” toward “justice.” These conversations are critical and we must keep having them. While we figure that stuff out, though, let’s take care of a few logistical things foundations do that make us nonprofits want to roll up a printed-out copy of our tax filings and beat ourselves unconscious.

So, I asked the NWB Facebook community to name the things funders do that get on people’s nerves. I got over 350 comments. I’ve condensed them into the Funding Logistics Aggravation, Incomprehensibility, and Laughability (FLAIL) Index. Here is a list of things that make us want to punch a wall, scratch our heads in bewilderment, or crack up laughing. Or drink. [Update: The FLAIL Index is now called the FLAIL Scale, and was revised on 1-21-17]

Funders: Please go through this list one item at a time and tally up your FLAIL points. Actually, use this Excel file, since it will automatically add up your score. Then have a conversation with your team about what things you can do to improve your score.

Nonprofits: Think of a grant proposal you’re working on, and go through this list. Whenever an item is true for this grant, take a shot of leftover gala wine.

Disclaimer: This is the very rough beta version, written while watching Iron Chef on Netflix. It is not comprehensive, has no scientific validity, and it will likely change when I have time to edit. Please consult with your doctor before using this checklist.

General stuff

  1. You give people less than 3 weeks to respond to an RFP (+5 points). It takes a while to be strategic, especially if you want strong collaborations.
  2. You don’t list your grantees and how much you give them on your website, so we have no idea how much to ask for (+3 points). Help us out so we don’t over-ask or under-ask.
  3. You don’t list clear info about whether you are currently accepting or not accepting applications (+5 points).
  4. You are not clear on what you will fund and what you won’t (+3 points). Have a list of what you do fund, and what you do NOT fund.
  5. You don’t fund existing programs (+5 points). Really, it needs to be “innovative”? How about you fund programs that “work”?
  6. You don’t fund “staff salaries.” (+5 points). Really? Who do you even think is running the programs, much les writing this grant proposal?!
  7. You mandate in-person attendance at info sessions (+3 points). Info sessions are helpful, but mandating them screws over nonprofits that may have heard about the RFP too late.
  8. Your LOI is more than 2 pages (+3 points). It’s an LOI; it’s supposed to be short; that’s the whole points of the LOI.
  9. Your LOI requires attachments (+5 points). If you require attachments, it’s now an application, no longer an LOI.
  10. You process takes longer than it takes to conceive and give birth to a baby (+5 points). If your LOI plus proposal plus site visit takes longer than for the average couple to make a human being, it’s too long.
  11. You ask for an entirely new proposal for renewal grants (+5 points). This org has been with you for a year or two or three. Why ask them to jump through the hoops again? Just ask for an update.
  12. You don’t note mandatory meetings upfront in the application, and then require them later (+5 points). If you require anything of grantees, make sure it’s in the RFP. We nonprofits don’t like surprises, except surprise donations.
  13. You make your proposal due during the holidays (+5 points). If you make anything due the day after Thanksgiving, or the week between Christmas and New Year, some of us will be making and burning effigies of you.

Application format

  1. You don’t accept emailed application (+5 points).
  2. You ask for the board chair’s signature, or board members’ signature (+5 points). Some of us have board chairs who are difficult to track down. I promise, no one is going around pretending to be us and writing grant proposals on our behalf.
  3. You don’t accept electronic signature (+5 points)
  4. You require anything to be notarized (+5 points). Notarized? That’s hilarious!
  5. You require anything to be faxed (+5 points). Fax is dead. If you require it, you should change the language of your RFP: “Thou hast 501c3 certification from the IRS, dost thou not? Prithee fax this parchment. Forsooth, it is verily of great import.”
  6. Your form is in Word and is not well-formatted, so typing in it looks like this Org:___Association of Unicorns for Equity____ (+5 points)
  7. You use forms that are not fillable, so we have to recreate them, or else find a typewriter (+5 points)
  8. You send paper applications and require nonprofits to fill them out (+5 points). We don’t have typewriters! Verily!
  9. You require ridiculous stuff like “a stamp of the common seal of the organization” (+5 points)
  10. You don’t allow for double-sided printing (+3 points).
  11. You ask people to send multiple printed copies of the application (+5 points). Tree killer!
  12. You require more than login and password to get into your online portal: (+1 points). Please don’t require an organization code, a login, a password, a phone verification, and an iris scan.
  13. Your online portal only works with one browser (+3 points).
  14. You don’t allow for autosave (+5 points). Yes, we know to type our answers in another document and then paste them over. Still, we can lose all that hard pasting work if something happens.
  15. You don’t offer to show all the questions up front (+5 points). It is irritating to have to fill out each page before being able to see the next questions.
  16. You don’t allow uploads. Everything has to be entered in one-by-one (+5 points). Please don’t make us enter each board member’s name one by one when we can just upload one document.
  17. You have severe character limits (+5 points) It takes us way longer to edit something down than for you to spend an additional minute reading. And then sometimes we get penalized for not being clear enough in our 250-character answer about how we plan to undo systemic racism.
  18. Your character limits make no sense (+5 points) “Please describe your mision, vision, strategic plan in 500 characters.” “Do you have a line of credit? 4,000 characters.”
  19. You don’t warn about character limits upfront, so we type some stuff in and then have to revise it (+5 points)
  20. You don’t have a live-character-counter built in, so it ends up being endles copying and pasting and checking and repasting (+5 points)
  21. You ask for multiple delivery methods: “Please email the narrative, fax us a copy of your 501c3 letter, upload your budget to this online portal, and send 18 copies of your entire application by mail” (+5 points)

Narrative and attachments

  1. You ask for extensive info for small amounts of money (10-page narrative for 5K?) (+5 points)
  2. You ask the same questions three or four different times (+5 points). “What are your goals?” “What does it look like if you are succesful?” “What do you hope to achieve with this funding?” Argh!!
  3. You ask for cover letter, and an Executive Summary, and a narrative (+3 points)
  4. You ask for excessive contact or personal information about board members (+5 points). You only really need the contact info of the board chair and treasurer. Don’t ask for everyone’s addresses, phone numbers, emails, birthdays, blood types, etc.
  5. You ask for major donors’ personal information (+5 points). Sometimes donors just don’t want you to know who they are
  6. You ask for volunteers’ personal information (+5 points). A funder asked for volunteers’ names, addresses, and phone numbers. That’s unnecessary and kind of creepy.
  7. You are not thoughtful about asking for personal information such as about sexual orientation of board, staff, clients (+5 points). I get that it’s important to be sure there is diversity on boards and staff, but do it thoughtfully, and take culture into consideration.
  8. You force people to have logic models (+5 points). Some logic models are great. But some people are not familiar with them, and you can get the same information with a question like, “What are your program activities, outcomes, and long-term results?”
  9. You require videos or other gimmicks (+5 points). It takes me three hours to do a 1-minute video because I tend to freak out on camera.


  1. You force applicants to fill out your own budget form (+10). We all have our own budget formats, and we spend way too much time translating it across 20 different funders who each has a different budget template. Please stop the madness and just accept our format!
  2. You have a budget form in word (+5 points). If you force us to fill out your budget template, please use Excel so we can use formulas!
  3. You ask for a 5-year budget (+5 points). Considering the volatility of this sector, many of us can barely project one year out. We’ll project 3 or 5 years out if you ask, but just know that it’ll likely change.
  4. You punish nonprofits for having too much in reserve (+5 points)
  5. You punish nonprofits for having too little in reserve (+5 points)
  6. You ask for things you refuse to help pay for (+5 points). If you don’t pay for “overhead,” then don’t ask for evaluation data or audits or program reports, because those things are all “overhead.”
  7. You ask the sustainability question (+5 points). As I wrote earlier, the answer to the question “How will you fund this program when our support runs out” will always be a euphemism for “We will leave you alone and bother other people,” so there’s no points asking it.
  8. You ask “how will you fund this project if we don’t fund you?” (+3 points). Same, we’ll bother other people.
  9. You restrict admin expenses, even if we don’t ask you specifically to pay for it (+5 points). If we are not asking you for funding for admin expenses, it’s aggravating when we still have to conform to your indirect expense guidelines.
  10. You ask for a list all other funders. Top 3 to 5, fine, but many of us have dozens (+3)
  11. You ask for full printed-out copies of 990s. Those things can be looked up on Foundation Center’s 990 Finder or Guidestar. (+5)
  12. You require more than 5 attachments (+5)


  1. You don’t assign anyone to field questions and provide support (+5 points)
  1. You don’t offer feedback on rejected applications (+5 points). We understand if you get 800 LOIs and can’t offer feedback to each one, but full proposals and 12 attachments?
  2. You leave vague voicemail messages and then are hard to reach (+3 points)
  3. You don’t respond at all to applicants’ questions (+5 points)
  4. You don’t confirm if an application is received (+3 points)
  5. You don’t email to announce changes of grantmaking processes (+3 points). It’s helpful to email your grantees changes, rather than expect everyone to find out by looking on your website. We have dozens of funders and can’t keep checking all the time.
  6. You require excessive reports (+5 points). Do you really need quarterly reports for a 5K grant?
  7. You force nonprofits to conform to your calendar (+3 points). I had a funder give a grant in October, nine months after the application was due, then expected a report in December to close out the calendar year.
  8. You don’t seek feedback on your application process (+5 points)

Redemption points (subtract these points from your total):

  1. You accept applications sent to other funders (+20)
  2. You accept LOIs and applications in different formats (+5)
  3. You provide technical support to organizations who request it (+5)
  4. You accept reports written to other funders (+10)
  5. You convene grantees to share lessons learned as part of evaluation (+5)
  6. You’ve test-ran your application process by pretending to be an applicant and actually filling it out in its entirety, including creating the budget and other attachments (+10)

How aggravating is your funding process?

  • You scored -60 to 0 points: You are a unicorn among funding unicorns! Thank you for making our lives easier and allowing us to focus on our work. You are brilliant, and your hair always looks great.
  • You scored 1 to 25 points: you are almost a magical unicorn. Change a few things. You can do it!
  • You scored 26 to 50 points: Your process is irritating, like getting a hangnail. Not horrible, but you can change a few things
  • You scored 51 to 75 points: Your process is painful, like that one time I got a papercut on my tongue after licking a thank-you card envelope.
  • You scored 76 to 100 points: If people had to choose between applying to your grant or getting bitten by a possum, it’s gonna be a toss-up.
  • You scored 101 to 150 points: Painful. Think “passing-a-gallstone” painful. 
  • You scored 151 to 200 points: Your process is “Getting poison ivy in the eye” horrifying. You may be driving people to leave the nonprofit sector. 
  • You scored 201 to 299 points: Your process may open a hole in the fabric of time and space and unleash the demon-god Cthulhu upon the world.

I hope that was helpful. The FLAIL Index will continue to be revised, so send in your feedback.

Meanwhile, to balance things out, next week we have a checklist of things nonprofits do that are aggravating to funders. I’m tentatively calling it the “Grantseekers Response Amaturism, Vexation, and Exasperation (GRAVE) Index.”

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60 thoughts on “Foundations, how aggravating is your grantmaking process? Use this checklist to find out!

  1. Justus Eisfeld

    Thank you! This is a really good list!
    Maybe you could add negative bonus points for things that make grantee life easier, for example these:
    – you accept reports that we’re written for other Funders (-10)
    – you do oral reports, ask questions that were sent to you well in advance, and your program officer sends a draft of the minutes of the oral feedback for your edit/approval (-20)
    – you allow LOIs in different formats that are accessible for people with little education, people with disabilities and anybody who has a hard time filling in forms (-10)
    – you provide technical assistance for people who have a hard time filling in a full application form (incl. people with little education and people with disabilities) (-15)
    I’m sure there are more – folks, please add to this in a reply.

    1. Patrick Taylor

      This is something I try to remind myself and my colleagues: We are funding people who do good work, not people who are awesome at filling out forms. Sometimes people are terrible at technology and grammar, but great at the work we are funding them to do.

  2. Sarah Lange

    LMAO, because otherwise, I’d be crying! As someone who’s been writing grants for nearly 30 years, I can so totally relate to each one of these! As a consultant, I try to provide a lot of this feedback to funders, but they don’t seem all that interested in hearing it.

    The only other thing I’d add to this list is “making us kill a 200 year Sequoia each time we submit a grant because you require us to use up so much #&%*$^&!@ paper!” I feel like I am personally responsible for de-nuding an entire slope of trees…

  3. Marla Felcher

    Thanks for sending this. We are a 275+ member women’s collective giving organization in Boston; we award $250K of grants each year ($25K grants) … and more. As a young, scrappy funder we can change what we do on a dime, and make improvements quickly. From the beginning, we have tried our hardest to be respectful of our applicants’ time and expertise. Happy to know we are doing well on your checklist. Happier to know that the team responsible for writing our LOI, and ensuring that we have a diverse set of applicants, is already working on improving what we do – based on these suggestions. Keep on doing what you’re doing – we’re listening. Marla, The Philanthropy Connection

  4. Cheryl Slavin

    I’m sorry I missed the call for aggravation suggestions. I would have added the funders who insist that you use their on line application, which happens to be in Excel and formatted to confound the masses (the corollary to using a budget form in Word). Even my tech and computer savvy teenage son couldn’t help me figure it out completely.

  5. Sara

    Loved this! Only thing I’d add is the application where the sheets of questions exceed the total allowable length of the response! Crazy!

  6. Ona

    Vu! Thank you for keeping me sane by validating the aggravating experiences we grant writers suffer! I would add one more to the list: Asking for repetitive and excessive attachments. I write a grant annually that has enough attachments to get me past Q in the alphabet, and include our ORIGINAL 501c3 letter from the IRS (we are a 20 year old nonprofit, so there was serious hunting involved), current 501c3 letter, AND a printout from the IRS website dated within so many days of the application showing we are still a nonprofit. Seriously, if they are so worried about us not being a nonprofit, maybe they could check the IRS website before they give a nonprofit money.

  7. Michelle

    As someone who WORKS for a grant and scholarship making organization methinks thou dost protest too much and don’t have a clue as to WHY we do some of these things. Let me address just a few of the numbered points you have nitpicked. #13 Applications are often due during this time because it is the MIDDLE of most organizations fiscal year, especially government. We can more accurately ascertain how much money we have to give out. And, the applicants are not trying to wrap up their fiscal year nor budget for the upcoming year. Organizations could dop themselves a favor by NOT waiting until the DUE DATE to submit their application (we actually PREFER early). Finally, not everyone celebrates holidays in December. #20/21 Many of the organizations that might apply to us for funding are, shall we say, NOT as technologically astute as some. MANY museums and historical societies are run by volunteers with an average age of 75. If we only had fillable online apps they could not or would not apply. #44/45 We, like many of the application organizations, have a limited number of staff (that way we can give out money), so we need to standardize things so that our grant readers can compare apples to apples. If every organization sent in their own budget format the evaluation process would take three times as long (see #10). #55 The vast majority of questions that come in to funders can be answered if the applicant takes 5 minutes and READS either the application itself or the website. I and our scholarship administrator spend an inordinate amount of time answering questions for which the answers exist on the web page or the RFP. The closer the deadline gets the more redundant the questions. So, would you rather have a special person sitting around answering questions or have us actually evaluating your proposals and following up with previously funded grants?

    What I am getting at here is that this blog post is TYPICAL of the mind-set today. Everyone is NOT a special snowflake, but wants to be treated as one. You need to think of what the grant funder is putting up with too. WHY do they want you to jump through hoops? WHY do they need this info? WHAT ELSE to they have to do in their daily jobs? (BTW, I actually direct our 256 acre historic site, administer one of our grant programs, coach our National History Day team, AND teach in our Education department).

    So try a little two-way empathy for a change.

    1. Aaron B

      As a funder, I can empathize and even agree with most of what you stated, Michelle. But many funders simply piggyback on the unnecessary application guidelines of others without giving intelligent thought as to why they require what they do for RFP’s which is just plain lazy and ignorant. As a former development director for a major nonprofit, I can just as easily sympathize with grant writers.

      According to this checklist, our foundation scores a 12 on the FLAIL index. That’s not to say that we are somehow better than others, but several years ago, we got together with other funders in our community to establish a universal downloadable, not to be confused with online, application process that has greatly eased the burden of our nonprofits. It’s not perfect (one app fits all solutions rarely are) but it was a huge step in the right direction.

      I wanted to specifically address one of the points you made about elderly applicants. Agreed that some have very little tech knowledge but most, if not all, know someone who does and are able to access them for assistance. Plus, more and more, this obstacle will become something of the past as digital natives begin to populate the grant writing audience. We’re not far from that mark now, I think.

      1. betty barcode

        You read my mind: “…several years ago, we got together with other funders in our community to establish a universal downloadable, not to be confused with online, application process that has greatly eased the burden of our nonprofits.”

        Every grant writer I know wishes that their major funders would do this.

    2. Patrick Taylor

      In my experience, half the time the funder has actual decent reasons for their more annoying requirements, and half the time they just haven’t thought through the impact on the grantseekers. The snowflake mentality cuts both ways – the funder thinking that their time is so important that it’s fine to make grantees do things that are enormously time-consuming and annoying, not taking into account how much time and effort we are making grantees exert. As funders, we shouldn’t write off grantees as being “special snowflakes” because they have opinions about our process. They might have valid points.

    3. Justus Eisfeld

      Just on the matter of deadlines: We all know that in an ideal world, everybody would submit their proposals at least a week ahead of the deadline yada yada yada. But the reality unfortunately is that many non-profit folks are overworked and things make it up the priority list the closer they are to the deadline. Also some people work best under a bit of deadline stress (I certainly am one of those). That’s just part of that wonderful thing called the human race – we are all different, and some people work better this way, and others work better that way. So instead of having the deadline on Friday after Thanksgiving, how about putting the deadline a week or two before Thanksgiving? Or instead of January 2, how about putting the deadline on December 20 or January 10 (in that case, just make sure the RFP goes out in the beginning of December the latest, not Dec. 23)? I’ve seen cases where the RFP went out right before somebody’s Christmas vacation, and the deadline was in the first week of January, so they had stuff to work on once they got back from wherever they went skiing. In the meantime, the applicants could cancel all their vacation plans and just work right through it. It was a truly horrible experience, especially for those who didn’t get the grant.

      1. Linda

        Having managed a 3-year grant application on the funder side, I was appalled at how late some seemed to even take a look at the application. One applicant wanted me to text her the answers to her last-minute questions the day before it was due.

        I am proud our FLAIL score was only 13.

    4. LTJaeger

      Michelle, I take it that you didn’t get “Magical Unicorn” when you tallied your score?


    5. LongmontKathy

      Also a funder (with more than two decades of experience). MIchelle, my experience is that streamlining the application process to benefit grantseekers also benefits us as grantmakers, reducing pain and frustration for both parties. (full disclosure – my own organization’s FLAIL score was too high – sorry for paper cut, Vu)

    6. Cloggie

      A big part of your shouty rant has nothing to do with the post, but other frustrations, such as applicants not reading materials and your annoyance with “people today”. Perhaps it is time for a relaxing hobby.

      Also, your complaint about #13 is not true. Applicants have fiscal years that run through a number of dates. I’ve worked for a number of places and some ran through March, others September and others December. Additionally, end of calendar year can be extraordinarily busy times in development departments (if there is a separate development staff at all) because that is when the majority of many groups’ individual donations come in to meet IRS deadlines for deductions.

  8. Priscilla Grim

    What hilarious is that “new” “foundations” are now just unaccountable llcs. Things like Solidaire are connected to HUGE pots of money — that they only give to their friends… so — off the charts, literally.

      1. Priscilla Grim

        Go to the website and google the names of the board of directors — all legacy wealth holders who do not want to be transparent or accountable – and in bed with the Ford Foundation.

  9. Patrick Taylor

    I was pleased to learn that my organization only does a few of these, and appalled to learn that some of this (like not paying staff salaries) are common enough to get called out.

    The one point I’ll push back on are the character limits. yes, they are terrible and annoying, but you know what else is terrible and annoying? When you have a ton of applications and each applicant writes a tome that would make George RR Martin proud, burying the essential information (what do we plan to do with this project) in miles of extraneous descriptions and flowery language and other stuff. I know it is a total pain to edit stuff down, but it is also a total pain to have to filter through grant applications that force you to dig through mountains of text to get to the crux of what the grantee is trying to do. And you might be applying for tens of grants, but the funder might be reviewing hundreds, which means they gotta have some parameters so they don’t go nuts.

    1. Aaron B

      As a fellow funder, I agree entirely with the character limits and would add that many times, volunteers (whose time we greatly value and deeply respect) are the ones who review applications. Sometimes these are some of the same vols that are pillars for area nonprofits. One of the worst things anyone can do is waste a volunteer’s time.

      And, really, Vu, you take issue with having to edit what you have to say? When was the last time you had to listen, ad nauseam, to a speaker who had obviously not rehearsed what they had to say to a group of people?

      Some sage advice I received a number of years ago was this, “If you fail to prepare before giving an hour long speech, take the hour of your life you’ve wasted and multiply it by the number of individuals in your audience.” Editing saves time and, arguably, brain cells. Do your homework so others don’t have to do it for you and quit whining about it!

      1. Patrick Taylor

        The one thing I’ll add is that the character limits should make sense, and allow enough room to actually answer the question. I saw an application recently that allowed 400 characters for the grantee to explain how their project fit in with the strategy of the program they were applying for. That’s not a lot of room, especially to answer with any sort of finesse and grace.

        1. Aaron B

          Agreed, that’s a pretty stingy limit. And it may even prevent a reviewer from gaining adequate understanding of the project.

          But, in the interest of equality, it may also be important to note that the same limit applies to every applicant (or should, at least).

        2. Katy

          I had to do an application in which many of the questions we had to responded to were themselves longer than the character limit for the corresponding response field. I am fine with limits, just make them thoughtful.

        3. LTJaeger

          I’ve got an application right now where the character limits aren’t adequate to type the legal name of the organization. When I pointed this out to the funder, their official response was “We’re confident there are enough characters to type program names.” People, I just told you that they’re AREN’T!! Why bother to reply with something that basically tells me that I don’t know the name of my own program! Aaaargh!!!!

        4. Cloggie

          I had one of those recently. Then there was a huge limit to state what percentages of our revenue came from a pre-set list of sources (corporate, individuals, etc). It made me feel like we were expected to write more but the question asked specifically about percentages. This was the only question with such a high limit, I wondered if it was an error in coding it. Entering 2999 character of lorem ipsum text did not set off a warning of too many characters, as was present in the other boxes.

      2. travelgirl28

        This is what Vu said in #31: Your character limits make no sense (+5
        point) “Please describe your mission, vision, strategic plan in 500
        characters.” “Do you have a line of credit? 4,000 characters.”

        I agree 100%. Do you see the difference he’s referring to? It’s not about our editing skills. It’s about common sense. Read your questions, consider how many characters it will take to make a thoughtful response and go with that number.

      3. McPierogiPazza

        Yikes! Someone missed the point. That refusal to understand the burdens put on applicants is a big part of the problem. I specialize in fundraising and communications, so I’m the last person to say that editing doesn’t matter. I do know, however, that funders waste a lot of nonprofits’ time asking us to rewrite all our cases fit every damn application. That’s just a drain on the sector. Limits are good, but they have to be reasonable and effective.

        1. Aaron B

          I’m not sure who the “someone” is you may be referring to but I’m in complete agreement – finders should do all they can to streamline the process short of strangling the grant writers ability to adequately present their case in a concise manner. That being said, it can be quite a balancing act.

    2. RachelAC

      The quibble here is about either “severe” or nonsensical character limits, not about having limits in the first place.

      Here’s one example from an application I filled out this year.

      The question:
      “Discuss how funding the proposed program(s) increases access to and enhances the presence of arts and culture in our city. How will the project improve appreciation/understanding of the arts and encourage arts development in the community? What short and longterm community benefits does the organization anticipate because of this project/program? Please make sure to answer all (3) questions.”

      Character limit of 500 characters (including spaces). The question itself is about 400 characters. THIS is what Vu is talking about.

      I adore character limits when they are reasonable, and have no problems editing for brevity and flowery language, but when there isn’t room to fit the content requested – frustrating!!

  10. Jamminese Miller

    I love this!! My organization still has a typewriter and an actual fax machine! We still receive paper payroll checks!

  11. Aaron B

    Disclosure: I’m a funder. But my organization scored a 12 on the FLAIL index so cut me a little slack. Plus, I worked for a major nonprofit as a development director for a decade so I feel your pain.

    There are a couple items on your list that I take issue with. And I’ll cut you some slack because, as you stated, this is a beta version.

    1) Items 2 and 4 can easily be answered with a visit to Guidestar and a review of the funder’s 990 or 990-PF (assuming application is being made to a foundation). This is called “research” and any grant writer who is worth her salt knows the wisdom and power of it.

    2) In item 54, you reference looking up 990’s on Guidestar. Remember, you are asking someone for money. You may recall going to your parent as a child or teenager and asking for something. You may also recall that the venture was probably far more likely to succeed if the ask was framed more as a request than a demand. The 990 should be a document readily at-hand for anyone seeking a grant and, although it is a small expense and requires a bit of wood pulp, this is not an unreasonable request from a funder and costs no more time from the grant writer than the push of a couple virtual buttons and a trip to the printer. While there are other printed items that are obviously superfluous, I’d argue that this is not one of them.

    1. Justus Eisfeld

      Actually, I only partially agree with the premise of ‘you are asking us for money, so you should…’. Foundations get something out of giving grants, too: prestige, support for their mission and goals, a tax cut, and – sometimes – absolution from their god. I’m sure I’m leaving out a whole forest of reasons why foundations have an interest in giving away money, and in finding that one grantee that most perfectly matches their profile. What I am saying is that there is something in it for foundations, and the premise of ‘you have to, because we give you money’ then becomes a issue of exerting power just because you can.

      1. Aaron B

        Good point, Justus. Giving from the standpoint of power, or perhaps more accurately, control, should never be the motivation for imposing unnecessarily upon those who only seek to make a positive difference in the community, state, nation, etc. But, unfortunately, there are many foundations who subscribe to that philosophy. Particularly private foundations.

        Not that we are entirely immune from that, but community foundations seem to be more in-tune with fellow nonprofits – perhaps because we are one. That and we are a donor services organization. Our money is not our own and, if we let our egos get ahead of us, we may find ourselves out of a job. In other words, it is incumbent upon us to stay in the practice of being a servant of the community rather than the reason for the community.

    2. RachelAC

      Good critiques here, but I don’t think item 4 (what a funder WILL and will NOT fund) can be answered by looking at 990’s. I can see if someone has funded certain types of organizations in the past, but that doesn’t tell me whether they only fund educational programs, or whether they give to capital campaigns, or if they fund overhead expense, etc.

      1. Aaron B

        True, Rachel, not all information is disclosed on a form 990.

        However, most can be gleaned by examining Schedule 1, Part 2, Column (h), “Purpose of grant or assistance”which describes the nature of the grant, not necessarily that of the grantee. Some foundations are more detailed than others and will actually specify capital, program, or other. Here’s a good tip for grant writers: Even if you are applying for operating funds, you should avoid calling them that. After all, most of those operations are designated for program support. For a skilled grant writer, it shouldn’t be that difficult to craft a request of funds for operations or “overhead” in terms of program.

        It’s uncommon that a grant will be written to cover fundraising or administrative expenses. But even as such, a foundation with good leadership will recognize the need to fund operations cost.

        Another tip: Studying the 990 (or 990PF) is always a good idea anyway. Not only will the amounts (and thereby the range, median, and average) of grants be revealed, there may even be telltale signs of preference of type of funding by board members who often have pet causes (this is immensely more common amongst private foundations). There may be clues that the foundation even funds (gasp!) outside of its advertised areas. It’s those kind of nuggets that, when properly mined, can net serious pay dirt.

    3. John Mulvey

      I agree that it is not a big deal to send a 990. I believe strongly in transparency, and the last couple of years our funders have accepted the 990 via a dropbox account.

    4. Cloggie

      I’ve always wondered how much funders actually review 990s in decision-making. Naturally, I have all such documents in a folder, ready for uploading or printing but have wondered as I watch yet another copy of our audit being printed out, I wonder why I am doing this for an LoI. I can see it for due diligence (which clearly varies widely by funder) once an application is near the end of the review process but as part of an initial hello?

      1. Aaron B

        That’s an important observation, Cloggie. And one that, even as a funder, I don’t have a universal answer for other than, as implied by the article, funders don’t always do things that make sense to or are necessarily most efficient for nonprofits.

        As a foundation, we invite first time applicants to have a person to person meeting with us before even submitting a one-page pre-app. That frequently alleviates a lot of headache down the road for us as well as the NP. Plus it creates an opportunity to begin a real relationship based on actual dialogue. Many foundations seem to treat nonprofits the same way a botanist would handle a potential microbial pathogen. That is, there is very little communication beyond the initial application process other than a letter of congratulations or rejection. When I was a development director for a nonprofit, I even recall several occasions that I never received acknowledgment either way and had to call/write/email to find out the status of my app.

        When we choose to fund a nonprofit, we view it as a real partnership with the organization for the betterment of the community. But even when we defer a request, we welcome the agency to give us a call to see if there were any specific reasons and we never seek to delegitimize their cause. We may even be able to offer tips that will increase their chance of being considered on the next go-round.

        But back to the main point – the 990. We actually do take a pretty good look at each one we receive – even for returning grantees. As stewards of our community, we have an obligation to be aware of the status of the nonprofits we partner with. This makes perfect sense when you think about it. Who would want to do business with an individual or entity who is not completely transparent and in generally good standing? And, not that we are looking for ways to decline funding requests, but there have been a few occasions when the information (or lack thereof) in a 990 or an audit will signal some serious problems within an organization. On the flip side, we may also discover some ways to better help or offer advice to our nonprofit partners. There are probably further benefits that I am overlooking.

        The balance between funders and nonprofits should always keep with the idea that it is something along the lines of a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship. It must always be professional with a focus on investing in a better future for all.

  12. GeorgeintheGorge

    Excellent.1,3,5,8,16,27,30-33, and 36 rang so true I heard bells. I was nodding my head up and down so often I spilled tea all over my second hand keyboard held together with duct tape and Gorilla glue. Having sat on both sides of the funding table I do sympathize with some of the funders points-too often many people do not fully read the requirements and/or won’t accept that the work they do is not aligned with the funder’s priorities. I get that. But I also know that many funders themselves write in totally garbled funder speak, making it extremely difficult to determine just what do they fund. Even the 990’s and other background research leaves me scratching my head.
    Innovative? Oh, yes. How many ways can you “innovate” in a small community with limited resources? Sometimes just offering a new program IS an innovation. Isn’t replication of a positive project with proven outcomes one of the holy grails of philanthropy? If it is innovative, I betcha it isn’t evidence based.
    Having written multiple grants it frustrates me no end when I click on a link that says “for more information” or FAQ’s and all there is is the exact same stuff I just read. It’s an endless loop. Or the painfully obvious observation that NO ONE APPEARS TO HAVE ACTUALLY READ the answers to the questions, so when you go in to a face-to-face interview a lot of time is spent (wasted) explaining basic information on who we are and what we do. If we made the cut to get to that step, surely someone must have read the proposal. Can please we talk about our good work instead? I realize you are tired and have seen a numbing amount of responses, but we respected your questions enough to answer them thoroughly and thoughtfully-can you respond in kind and READ them?
    Then there are the funders that don’t update their websites so the information/application is 2 or 3 years old. It seriously does not take that long to reload updated applications or change the date on a simple website.
    It also amazes me that funders ask for detailed information on partnerships, but then often discount the power of the connections and the multiplier effect they can have that helps to maximize the funds we do work with. Believe me, coming from a tiny and extremely poor rural area partnerships are how we make it, but many funders in the big city just don’t get it.
    I once got turned down for a small capacity building grant (6 days of solid work) because it appeared to the funder we didn’t have the capacity to use the funds. That one still rankles.
    Thanks, Vu. You made my Monday suck a little less, just like always.


  13. Lorena Garcia Flores

    Amazing round up of the FAIL index. LOVE IT! Can we also add in the FAIL index the concept that many funders do not accept unsolicited grants and do not offer an opportunity to introduce the org to the funder? We don’t know what we don’t know and therefore funders don’t know every org that is doing great work that can help them achieve their strategic goals. Also, how about entering the relationship as partners, not as a hierarchy. Foundations have goals that cannot be accomplished with out organizations. Lets build partnership, and get rid of this sense that we have to roll out the red carpet and bend over backwards anytime a funder needs or wants something.

  14. Larry Kaplan

    Yeah, yeah, we know — foundations suck. And they make up a minority of the funding sources for philanthropy in America. To reboot my broken record — nonprofits and charities, continue to seek grants but stop kvetching about foundations and start raising money from individuals to diversify your funding streams. Start looking at social enterprise as a funding source, as well. This means stepping outside of your comfort zone and having the patience to take a couple of years to see tangible results. But light the damn candle and stop cursing the darkness.

    1. travelgirl28

      Well, gee, Larry, that’s great advice but for many organizations foundations have the capacity to make more frequent and larger gifts than the individuals we know. I get several six figure gifts each year from the foundation side so I’m not going to say bye to them just yet.

      1. Larry Kaplan

        No, don’t say goodbye to foundations! I don’t mean that — in fact, you should always seek to improve and enhance your fundraising with foundation funders. But you should also invest in and launch a robust individual donor program at the same time — diversify and expand your fundraising efforts on more than one track. Understand that it will probably take at least a year or more to see results from individual donor fundraising, but in the long run, it is worth it. Individual donors are loyal and don’t make you jump through as many hoops, as long as you are good at nurturing your relationships with them. And start now to develop such a program — a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. My gripe is that so many nonprofits don’t even bother to think outside the box and implement individual donor programs, and end up spending too much energy complaining about foundations.

        1. travelgirl28

          We do have an individual giving program (major gifts). And it frequently gets lauded and rewarded far more than the institutional giving side of things, which I confess irks me, because the institutional fundraising I do almost always brings in greater funds year after year. That’s why I get riled when someone downplays foundation funding and asks me to “stop kvetching about foundations” to focus more on individual giving. 🙂

    2. John Mulvey

      When you say start raising money from individuals are you talking about major gifts or direct mail? For organizations to seriously ramp up their direct mail programs it involves a MAJOR investment and the organization may not see the benefit for at least five years. With regard to social enterprise, too often these are the folks chasing “innovation” and the next big shiny thing as opposed to programs that may be more traditional but work.

      1. Larry Kaplan

        It can be both, but I was thinking individual gifts, some of which can be “major,” solicited the old-fashioned way by developing lists, a process and having the team go out and solicit.

        You are right — direct mail, and even a good online fundraising program with significant reach, is expensive, and usually most appropriate for larger organizations with a higher than local profile. But even the smallest shops can do individual fundraising (again, some of which are major gifts) at a reasonable cost — best resource is Pamela Grow, who you can Google.

        When I talk about social enterprise, I am referring to fee for service work based on an organization’s core competencies. For example, I know of a nonprofit that took one of it’s foundation-supported school-based programs, packaged it and began to successfully seek contracts from school districts.

  15. Michael Brand

    I’ve been on the funder side and oversaw the granting of some $25 million in my time with foundations. I’ll ask you to keep in mind that Program Officers have to answer to their Directors, their Trustees, the IRS and state regulatory agencies. In addition, foundations are also _political_ in that they operate in environments with a lot of competing forces. So while the Request For Proposal may appear to an outsider as an insanely complicated process, it also is a reflection of various foundation staff trying to balance a whole set of diverse interests.

    1. Cloggie

      There are a lot of materials that do not need to be part of the initial application. Instead, awards are contingent upon providing things not directly relating to the quality, value, or importance of a proposed program.

      1. Michael Brand

        I agree. And during my tenure we did streamline the process a lot. Just pointing out there are a lot of regulatory, legal and political requirements foundations have to balance….and that’s what drives some of the noise and clutter of an RFP

  16. Linda

    #44: As a funder, we made our program budget template for a 3-year grant optional. The ones who didn’t use it submitted the worst budgets ever. We specifically didn’t require using our template, which was a basic auto-calculate Excel sheet, because we truly thought that our applicants had their own formats. Au contraire! We had about 25% of applicants who couldn’t even make their numbers add up. One of them wrote it as a Christmas list!

    #7: We mandated info sessions for everyone currently funded since our funding priorities were shifting and we wanted to clearly explain what we were looking for as well as what would and would not get funded. We also had open sessions for new applicants. Both groups also got a 12 page RFP that detailed requirements for funding and our funding areas. Some of those who have been funded in the past weren’t funded, and when we graciously offered in-person meetings their response was “Well, nobody reads the materials! You’ve always funded us!”

    But all in all, we only scored a 13. Whew!

    1. Cloggie

      Bravo on making your budget template an Excel spreadsheet (and with formulas! I love formulas!). No, I seriously mean it. I have seen templates that were locked PDFs, which required more time to adjust the formatting to look at least semi-professional than it did to fill in.

  17. Marshall Ginn

    Yay! Thanks again. Between this and the GRAVE scale, we should be able to fix all of the world’s problems with grantmaking and grantseeking!! Yeh, right… but it’s worth a shot!!! As I mentioned in my reply to the other checklist, I think that there is a lot that can be learned by BOTH funders and nonprofits by reading both checklists. Funders and nonprofits can help each other such that the process is not as irritating as it can be. Remember, when it all comes down to it, this is about addressing and supporting some of society’s greatest needs, its most vulnerable populations, and some astounding visions and ideas. We need to do what we can to ensure that these irritants don’t get in the way our accomplishing these noble goals.

  18. Nancy

    This checklist is great! We scored around 20-25. We do however give grant applicants $1,000 contributions who do not receive a grant award from us, have smaller organizational budgets, and submit complete applications. This is in recognition of their time investment and opportunity cost for completing our application process. We also hope it will help encourage smaller grant applicants to accept our invitation to apply, especially if they have many competing priorities for their time. I hope that will knock off a few points from our score! But I’m also curious to know if other grantmakers offer similar stipends / contributions as well?

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