I spent 10 years as a corporate foundation program officer in New York City. I managed our $5 million community development grants portfolio, which directly supported some 75 nonprofits. After this, I went on to run the nonprofit intermediary charged with coordinating citywide foreclosure prevention efforts in NYC. My organization had a $6 million budget, and distributed grants to about 30 nonprofit partners who provided direct foreclosure prevention services.
For at least part of this time, I was a real jerk.
I was the kind of funder who sat across the table from you and didn’t say a word for about the first 30 minutes while you went through your presentation. I then spent the remaining 30 minutes grilling you about all the things that could go wrong with your program, or all the challenges it could face, or the holes/surplus on your balance sheet, or the weakness of your second line management, or the how you’d meet the gap in your proposed budget, or the timing of your implementation, or the proposed outcomes (ah, the outcomes… the outcomes…). This is of course assuming that I knew anything about the program area in which you were working. If I didn’t, then I would nod my head sagely and tell you I’d get back to you later. Which I didn’t.
And this is if you were lucky enough that I returned your call or email.
And of course then there were the proposals that sat on my desk for weeks, then months. Those carefully crafted 10 page proposals with footnotes and attachments—built to specification for the objectives of my particular program area. But still they sat.
And then there were the site visits that I never made time for, and the reports I never read. (Yes, I got your report—it went straight to the file with a check mark for the grants administrator to note that you had fulfilled your reporting requirement. The inner pages were ne’er besmudged with my fingerprints.)
And then there were the turndowns. Oh, the turndowns. Coming late if they came at all, letting you know how competitive the process had been and that unfortunately we couldn't fund everybody. That last bit was true, but I could have been nicer. I could have provided some feedback to make your proposal stronger next time. I could have at least called after you went through all the work of responding to the lengthy RFP.
So, I just wanted to say how sorry I am. Really.
I know—fat lot of good that does you now, my former almost grantees.
But I've learned a few things. Giving away money, even someone else’s money, is a position of privilege and power. It is a hard job, I understand. Many people want to meet you, speak with you, get your attention, make you a friend—it's an occupational hazard. But it's very easy (at least it was easy for me) to resent the attention, or dismiss honest efforts to build a connection, or to avoid people because of this position. Hiding out is just so tempting. But in hindsight I could be arrogant, dismissive, and unfair.
All funders should be required to go out and raise money. They should join the board of a nonprofit that they care about (preferably one that’s small, local, and making a real difference in their community, but that’s terribly under-resourced), and try to raise some serious cash. It's an incredibly humbling experience. I did it, and it taught me a lot of “golden rule” type lessons about the funder/grantee relationship.
The experience changed me, and I made a number of commitments:
Be Accessible: I really tried to answer all the phone calls and emails. That’s hard! Visible funders get a lot of requests. I couldn’t meet with everyone, but in many cases I would at least set up a phone call and talk them through our program support areas.
Be Helpful: When I did connect with folks I tried to really listen to them about their programs and objectives to look for fits. I gave feedback on how to present their proposal, including specific advice about how to discuss the relevant program. Many times I would also try and think of other funder contacts who might be interested in seeing the proposal as well.
Be Honest: When someone’s not a good fit, I tried to tell them right off. I also tried to let them know if I thought they ever could be a fit, and how they might address the gap. If I turned someone down, particularly when a request had advanced to serious consideration, I called them and spoke to them about the decision.
Don't Make Unnecessary Demands: I finally realized that I needed to change our RFP process. The RFP’s were too detailed, and groups that could have been potential awardees wouldn’t submit because they didn’t think their chances merited the amount of work involved. I had always conducted information sessions before the RFP due date, but I expanded these to include panels of previous awardees discussing key aspects of their successful proposals and their projects. Finally, we changed the response process to begin with a two-to-three-page project summary response. After we vetted these, then we would invite a much smaller pool to write full proposals, insuring that finalists had a much more competitive chance.
Be Even More Helpful: When someone became a grantee, I tried to use reports and site visits to offer support to the program and the organization. This could range from referrals to other groups who were successful in similar projects that might offer some insights, to referrals to trade associations and intermediaries who could be helpful, to discussions with management about organizational challenges (staffing, leadership development, transition planning, and so on). I felt it was my role to become an ally to the organization, not just a pocketbook, and my broad exposure to other stakeholders in the sector allowed me to offer important insights and resources that went way beyond the money.
I believe that philanthropy should balance relationship management with assessment and evaluation. Relationships ultimately form the core of sound philanthropy—they are necessary to insure the deep knowledge necessary to insure program and organizational success. Privilege and power can easily become barriers, and it takes constant awareness to combat these tendencies.
I wanted to tell you what I would do if I ever get the chance to do it all over (and after this post, that’s pretty damned unlikely).
Next time, I promise that I won't be such a jerk.