Inside Foundations is a blog authored by an anonymous program associate at one of the country’s largest foundation. Writing under the name “M”, she drew on her background as both a grantmaker and a grantseeker and offered an illuminating perspective on the current debate:
About the warm fuzzy nonprofit lexicon – the foundation that employs me is starting the practice of actually telling applicants why we declined their application (which flabbergasted the local fundraisers whom I broached the subject with – as apparently no foundation has ever been that straightforward with them – they were ecstatic!) They wanted the feedback.
As I am just the lowly Program Associate I had the responsibility of proofreading the little blurbs that the Program Officers wrote for each decline. I ran into something that really irked me. There was a phrase that was repeated in many of the declines. The Program Officer wrote something to the effect that the case for support "was not very strong." Then they gave 3 or 4 really good reasons why the proposal was uncompetitive, a bad fit or just plain wrong. Instead of saying "not very strong" why didn’t they just write "weak?" Why use 3 words when one will suffice? "Oh, weak just sounds too harsh" they told me.
Some of the Program Staff were so worried about offending the applicant that what they wrote in their decline rationale was so vague and useless it was no more informative to the nonprofit than the form letter they used to get saying we get more solicitations than we could ever fund therefor we must decline you, etc.
Maybe I am unique, or maybe it is just because I used to be a fundraiser, but if my proposal gets declined, I would want to know why. That way I can take steps to fix the problem.
Why does the foundation world (or at least what I have seen so far) seem so reluctant to give honest, straightforward feedback to applicants? If somebody sucks – tell them so they can fix it.
We don’t have to be rude or mean, and I certainly respect all nonprofits enough not to actually use the word "suck", but I am still going to decline you. If your case is weak, I’m going to call it weak. Then I will tell you why it is weak, so next time you can be more competitive. If your governance structure is inappropriate, I will tell you why so that you can come in line with best practices.
I know as foundations we are seen as being the ones with "the power" in the relationship between grantmaker and grantseekers. But with that power, don’t we also have the responsibility to help nonprofits better themselves? We exist solely to benefit the nonprofit sector they comprise.