Tag Archives: grantmaking

Time inequity: What it is and why it’s no-good, very-bad

[Image description: A black-and-white photograph of two hourglasses standing side-by-side within a black box frame overlooking an indecipherable background (it might be a city, out of focus). The hourglass on the left has white sand, and the one on the right has black sand. Both seems almost full and are trickling sand, culminating in small sand piles in their respective bottom chambers. But the black-sand hourglass seems to have less sand in the top chamber.]

People have been asking me, “Vu, how do you manage to write a blog each week while running a nonprofit and parenting a toddler and a baby, and yet still retain your youthful good looks?” The secret is simple: I don’t sleep, and also, personal hygiene and nutrition standards have been lowered. Having a second kid, especially, has sapped our time so much that we tend to eat over the sink in five-minute increments; I don’t mind, because it allows me to rinse pureed peas and quinoa from out of my hair.

I can’t blame the baby for flinging food at us though. We haven’t been paying nearly as much attention to him as we did with his brother. He just turned one, and I think half the people we know aren’t even aware that we have a second baby, so little have we mentioned him. One person seemed irritated; he cornered me one day and said, “Hey, I heard you have a new baby? Why didn’t you tell me?” I felt terrible. All I could reply was, “Sorry, Dad…” Continue reading

Why we need to stop asking “What do you do?”

[Image description: A right hand is in focus, extended toward the viewer, as if this person is offering to shake hands. The person is out of focus, but appears to be wearing a grey button-down shirt with a black blazer. The composition is focused on the hand and torso, so we don’t see the person’s head.]

A while ago, while I was seeking input for a post on how we can all be more disability-inclusive, a colleague mentioned that we should drop the get-to-know-you question “What do you do?” because people with disabilities face significant employment discrimination, and this question is often a painful reminder of that. Another colleague of mine who is brilliant and talented and hilarious and wheelchair-enabled told me she spent seven years searching before someone hired her. I can imagine all the times during those seven years when people asked her “What do you do?” and how she must have felt. This has made me think of the “to-do” culture that we have and how it’s been affecting our work.

I learned a few years ago, through my participation in the German Marshall Memorial Fellowship, that the US has a default “To-Do” culture. The first thing we ask someone we meet is about what they do. Actions, in our culture, define us. For other cultures, though, are more of a “To-Be” culture, and you are defined less from what you do, and more from who you are:  Your relationships, your family history, your beliefs, your passions, your haircuts, etc. Continue reading

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] Continue reading

The most crotch-kickingly craptastic grant application notice ever

crotch kickToday, I paid 10 bucks to get kicked in the crotch by a funder. Well, not literally, but that’s what it felt like. We had applied for a significant grant (over 100K), in partnership with another organization. Yesterday, we were excited to get an email from this funder asking for the ED to come downtown for a meeting, and to bring copies of the grant application. Sweet! One step closer!

Normally, this is how a grantmaking process works: First, an RFP is released. We review the RFP, figure out if it’s a good match for our mission, rally potential partners, write the application, and submit it. Then we wait. Usually, one of three things happens. The best scenario, of course, is getting a phone call saying we got the grant, in which case, depending on the size of the grant, I close down the office, tell the staff to stop helping disadvantaged clients for the day, and we all go out for ice cream.

The most common scenario is we get a letter saying, “Blah blah, we had 300 applications and there is only so much funding to go around; your application, while strong, did not qualify; we’re available for feedback,” in which case, depending on the size of the grant, I close down the office, tell the staff to stop helping disadvantaged clients for the day, and we all go out for alcohol, and in an inebriated state we beg the bar owner to be a sponsor or at least for some sympathy fries on the house.

A third result is an email or phone call asking us to come in for an interview or a meeting, in which case, a whirlwind of activities happens, including reviewing the grant application (because by then, we’ve forgotten what we proposed, something about helping kids), doing a pre-meeting to determine who says what so that we don’t trip over each other, and determining logistics such as carpooling and whether we should color coordinate our interview outfits and get haircuts.

The interview stage does not automatically mean that we get the grant, but it is exciting to think that we are a little closer to being able to do some cool programming and help some great kids and families. I am on paternity leave, but this was a large grant, so I dragged my fellow ED from the collaborating organization, Sharonne, and one of my staff, James, and we drove downtown, getting there 30 minutes early to review our game plan. James had spent the previous night creating a chart to better illustrate our program model.

We walked into the room, ready to answer questions and dazzle the two grant reviewers, who seemed like nice women.

“So you know how this process works,” said one of the women, “we got 10 applications, and could only select 2. Unfortunately, VFA is not one of the two organizations. However, you came real close and just missed it by a couple of points.”

WTF? We looked at each other, confused. “We have some feedback here for you, and can answer any questions you have. Would you like to hear the feedback?”

Silently, we nodded, thinking this was the most bizarre meeting ever. She went through a long list of feedback about our applications, both good and bad, and we sat there, stunned, like we were in some weird sort of nonprofit twilight zone.

“So,” she said, “do you have any questions?”

We paused.

“Yes,” I said, “when did the notice about the grant go out? Did you send a letter saying that we didn’t get this grant? Because we didn’t get any notice…”

The women looked at each other.

“Well, uh, no, sorry, I know it’s a little cryptic when we called you in, but we didn’t want the word spreading about who got and didn’t get the grant, so we, um, wanted to call you in and talk to you, and THEN we send out the notices.”

I was trying hard to control my temper, and I could feel the anger rising in Sharonne and James.

“We feel blindsided,” I said, “Normally we get a rejection letter or phone call, and then we ask for feedback. We are used to rejections, so that is not the issue. You don’t call people in, leading them to think that they are advancing in the process, only to tell them they didn’t get the grant.”

“Well, uh, that’s the process that [our supervisor] set up.” She looked at her colleague. “That’s funny, this is the first time we’ve gotten this feedback.”

“I don’t appreciate this,” I said. I had had all of two or three hours of sleep each night for the past 18 days and was in no mood to be extra nice.

“Your assistant asked us to bring in copies of our grant application,” said Sharonne, “why would we bring copies if it’s just a feedback session?” She had driven over an hour to get to this meeting.

“Well, uh, we see what you mean,” one of the women responded, “we certainly didn’t need copies. We have so many!—“

“Which we thoroughly reviewed,” the other woman chimed in cheerfully.

“We’ll talk to our assistant,” they said.

We left, feeling extra crappy. Not getting the grant is one thing, and something that all nonprofits are used to even though it hurts each time, but driving all the way downtown and wasting our time preparing for this meeting only to get 5 minutes of feedback that could have easily been delivered by phone, simply because they didn’t want word spreading prematurely—that sucks. Since this was downtown Seattle, we wasted 20 bucks on parking the two cars, making us all feel like we each paid to get kicked in the gonads, and not in a good way.

“Let’s go get a drink,” I said, and others thought it was a great idea. After a mimosa in each of us at 11:37am, the episode seemed hilarious. This was hysterical! Ha, James stayed up making a chart! Sharonne drove up from Olympia! Me spending several minutes this morning figuring out if I should wear my red button-down shirt, which conveys power, or my purple striped button-down shirt, which conveys practicality. (I chose the purple one). We didn’t get the 100K grant that we had spent hours working on! It was really, really funny!

I love this work. It is never boring, even on some days when I wish for it to be.

Our waitress was extra nice when we told her what happened. “Keep trying,” she said. I should have asked her for some sympathy fries.