Category Archives: NGO

Grant Conversations

Online communications are preferred for an ever-growing number of professionals today, whether that be via email, secure website form, secure internal communication platform, by telephone, Facebook Messenger, LinkedIn Messaging, video or phone conference call, and more. This, combined with the fact that there are a growing number of applicants seeking grant funding often means the communication between grant seeker and funding entity is even more limited than it would normally be today.

It can be a challenge to get in touch with those in charge of making grants and/or those charged with interfacing with the grant writers about potential grant requests. Yet, if funding entities want to support the highest quality, most effective programs – whether they be corporations, foundations, donor advised funds, federal and other government agencies – then it would make sense to converse as soon as possible with applicants prior to their spending enormous amounts of time writing grants and submitting them, only to find the interests of the prospective donor have changed, or funding is tapped out, for instance.

The point of my post is simply to encourage grant makers to respond in a timely fashion to requests for information in whatever way they prefer. You do sometimes hear that, “so many” people are reaching out for financial support that the staff just, “don’t have the time” to respond to inquiries.

If that is true, why not hire more staff to field requests? That way, you prevent unnecessary applications and wasted time by potential applicants who literally spend hours and days crafting what they believe are meaningful and appropriate grant proposals. You also ensure that you receive the best possible applications, perfectly tailored to your interests. This is also good public relations. Even if the job of your staff is simply to say you are not accepting proposals, this would help nonprofit fundraising staff redirect their time in more productive ways and not be longing needlessly for a grant that will ultimately be rejected.

As I write this, many are working from home. It seems to me this kind of communication task is ideal for funding staff who can and do work from their homes. Don’t let nonprofit grant seekers misunderstand your lack of a response as meaning, “we don’t care about your nonprofit and we are just too busy to respond.”

Having said this, there are some funding entities with which I have worked that are quick to respond with, “we will let you know if we need more information.” “Yes, you can apply during our next funding cycle, but now is not a good time.” “Let us know if you have any questions.” To them, I give a high five!

I also interacted recently with a corporate community relations executive via email who responded to my questions about the company’s online application immediately. “Let me check.” “I’m not sure why you cannot upload that attachment.” “I will get back to you.” And they did so on multiple occasions. Frankly, even if my project is not funded in the end, I am left with a feeling of gratitude for their being honest and responsive.

Having said this, in my experience responsive grant professionals are relatively few and far between. So, respectfully, I urge corporations, foundations, donor advised funds, government agencies and the like to put more energy and resources into responding to those reaching out for guidance. You will shine in the end and improve your grant making in the long run!

You and the Donor

Meeting of Three

I have wanted to discuss this topic for a long time, but I have struggled with how best to go about it. I have not known a nonprofit support organization to tackle this topic in a realistic way, yet it is especially important for new staff, especially those in development. I do think some acknowledgement by leaders in our sector would be helpful, as would developing some “mindset” training into our industry’s regular regimen of educational conferences.

When I obtained my first nonprofit position, I bonded with the organization, its image and mission totally. To my mind, we were inseparably linked. The two did not exist apart from one another! I was young, learning at a fast pace, and I absolutely loved the organization. It felt like a perfect fit.

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Four years later, two supervisory changes and a decline in our local economic climate meant I had become frustrated. I started looking for a new position. Eventually I moved on (and up) with my career. But mentally, this was a tough change. My entire self worth was bonded to the nonprofit; once I departed, I felt adrift. I had also gotten to know many of the leading donors and volunteers as well. They felt like family. But I had to learn how to separate myself from that environment and those closely associated with it, and to “let go.”

Now, it is true that some of those same philanthropists are friends and professional colleagues today, more than twenty five years later. But the pain of leaving my first nonprofit family and friends was hard. But something important happened. I underwent a crucial mental change.

  • I acknowledged I had to move on for my own reasons;
  • I realized those donors still loved the nonprofit I was leaving (even though I no longer did);
  • I acknowledged that I should respect that loyalty (how could they get along without me?); and
  • I looked ahead, recognizing that it was entirely possible I would interact with my former nonprofit donors in future jobs.

Those realizations marked a significant change in attitude and helped me succeed in my future positions. The moment this shift occurred, it became possible for me to be friends with many of the philanthropists with whom I worked over the years in the sense we became comfortable talking about philanthropy more broadly, we shared general advice and personal life experiences. Mutual respect had been established. “Letting go” was a mature step forward that I needed to take.

Which is to say, nonprofit development professionals are not the sole spokespersons for the organizations with which they work. Directors, program officers, curators and even groundskeepers have their own relationships. Regrettably, I have experienced intense jealousy by other staff members when they see how comfortable I am with donors. Some have attempted to get rid of me entirely, feeling there is too much competition! But in truth, I have mentally separated myself in such a way that I fully understand the nonprofit with which I am currently working will go on long after I am gone. If I can make appropriate connections to benefit the project at hand, I definitely will. But I do not “own” any donor. The decision to become involved and to donate is entirely theirs.

Some staff can see you as a threat to their own (self) appointed position as, “the best friend of the donor.” I have discovered this with executive directors and department heads, for example. But I urge you, regardless and for your own well being, separate yourself from the organization mentally. You have your own life and are a person of value without or without the nonprofit.

Represent your organization in an absolutely first class fashion 24-7, even when you are not working. But also, step out of the picture if you become uncomfortable. I have discovered donors and volunteers (and the nonprofit organization) will appreciate you more if you follow this advice, and you will earn their trust for a lifetime.

Notes and Thoughts

  • Nonprofit work can inspire a stronger emotional attachment psychologically than corporate work, at least in my experience. This is especially true with those new to the nonprofit sector and in my case, with younger, inexperienced staff members. The organization’s leadership should be mindful of this dimension of their work and be sensitive to it. Today, employees change jobs fairly frequently and if you can part ways in a civil fashion, giving the less experienced staff a positive boost as they march out the door, everyone will be better off. That can be a tough assignment, but I believe it is a worthy one.
  • The Donor Relations Guru has posted a thoughtful article I enjoyed, “Team Player or Individual Contributor?” (April, 2017). I admit, I like the point of view conveyed. “They say in fundraising there’s an 80/20 rule, that 80% of the money comes from 20% of the donors. I have my own 80/20 rule for working and implementation and its one that may strike home for you too. 80 percent of the work gets done by 20 percent of the employees.” I have been hired a few times to do work the staff either tried to do and failed, or refused to do at all. I have also been hired to achieve “the impossible,” only to have other staff take my laurels when I am done with my work. I sometimes say in my mind, “if you could have done the job without me, why didn’t you?” I often wonder why these kinds of employees retain their jobs, but they always seem to.
  • Founder’s Syndrome is something I have encountered occasionally in my work over the years. Here is an article by Jeff Jowdy for NonProfitPRO (2013), “9 Ways for Nonprofits to Overcome ‘Founder’s Syndrome’.” Founder’s Syndrome is a bit more dangerous phenomenon than youthful attachment to an organization. “Founder’s Syndrome can be particularly devastating to fundraising. If a founder is not open to increased accountability as an organization grows, donors will become increasingly suspicious and may eventually flee.” This is where my personal “rub” has occurred in the past, when an Executive Director becomes threatened and unnecessarily jealous of my contacts and fundraising success. I have learned to step back, and if a resolution cannot be reached – despite my being the primary tie to the donors – I have removed myself from the situation. And a few times, the donors have gotten upset with me. But truly, I had no choice.
  • You might enjoy reading Oliver Burkeman for The Guardian, “Beware the Gravitational Pull of Mediocrity” (2015). Sometimes when people strive for excellence, organizational strife can result. Innovators can be viewed as dangerous! And sometimes, the one achieving excellence can be seen as a threat, and they may ultimately be pushed out. I have also seen mediocre employees remain on staff at nonprofit organizations, and for decades. They are neither terrible at their jobs, nor excellent. Go figure. Personally, I think mediocrity is an underappreciated survival skill.
  • Jennifer Verdolin Ph.D. wrote for Psychology Today, “Is It Only Natural for Us to Be Jealous?” (2014). “We humans not only have the tendency to become jealous over imagined threats, we also don’t often seem to take into account the ‘cost’ of certain behaviors.” I think educational programming for development professionals on dealing with jealousy would be an excellent idea.