This post is by Jacob Smith, co-author of the The Nimble Nonprofit: An Unconventional Guide to Sustaining and Growing Your Nonprofit. The book is so awesome that I asked Jacob to post adapted excerpts from it here for you, every Friday for ten weeks. Tweet at @brightplus3 if you’re loving it!
Most people will agree that the grant proposal and grant report system is imperfect (too long, too slow, too complicated, too lots of other things), which probably means you’ll be tempted to complain about it to your staff, your peers, and maybe even the funders themselves. It may not matter much if you vent to your staff and peers, but with the funders themselves there’s a catch. Some don’t believe the grant proposal and report system is dysfunctional, and they aren’t likely to believe you. Others are very aware of the problems and are working to refine and improve how the grantmaking process works. Your whining about it is much more likely to annoy them than it is to educate or help them improve the system.
Our advice: suck it up. Figure out how to write grant proposals and grant reports that meet the needs of the foundations you are pitching, and get on with your work. This advice extends to another commonly voiced criticism about foundations: “That group isn’t doing very good work but they are getting all the funding, while we are doing great work and can’t even get the funders to return our calls.” To put it bluntly, you can’t expect foundations or any other potential donor to fund your organization just because you do good work, or just because you believe your work is better than that of another group. Foundations fund whomever they want for their own reasons. If you want to get in on it, stop complaining about how they aren’t paying attention to you, figure out what their needs are, and learn how to tell your organization’s compelling story in a way that aligns with their view of the world and their funding priorities.
One piece of conventional but very useful advice: chasing money is hazardous. There’s a lot of gray between fundraising on your own vision and changing your vision to fit that of potential funders. It can make a lot of sense to tweak your strategy and goals to better fit a funders’ priorities or view of the world. Fundraising involves a partnership between donors and recipients, after all, and that sometimes requires collaborating to come up with something that works well for everyone. But adapting your programs to fit the desires of potential funders is a very, very slippery slope. Proceed with caution.
One last observation about foundations: many funders talk with one another, sometimes a lot. You and your organization will develop a reputation in the funding community based on what many funders think of you, not just those who fund your work. It’s often well worth the time to build good relationships with funders who operate in your world, whether they directly support you or not. As it turns out, working with funders is a lot like working with major donors and most other folks you might develop relationships with. Treat people well, build a reputation for competence and integrity, and find ways to offer value to those whose contributions and grants you are hoping to secure. There’s plenty of hard work that goes into most successful foundation fundraising efforts, but this alone will get you halfway there.