This entry to the One Post Challenge comes from Suzanne Walsh. Suzanne is a program director at the Lumina Foundation for Education. She previously worked as a program officer at The Heinz Endowments. Says Suzanne, “Before joining the world of philanthropy I was on the “other side”, working in non-profits where my job entailed writing grants and working on a large capital campaign. I have also served as the fundraising chair for boards on which I have served and have had to make those dreaded calls to prospective donors so I have seen this issue from all sides. I was even a telemarketer for an opera company!” Suzanne’s views do not necessarily represent those of the Lumina Foundation for Education.
By Suzanne Walsh
Are we killing our grantees?
Is there such a thing as too much money? Here is what has been bothering me lately: we give and we give and we give…to the same organizations. Is there ever a moment when we have given too much? Yes, you heard me, too much.
What happens when every local foundation discovers the hot new leader? We all want to invest in her and her organization for anything and everything. And then we wonder a year later why she is overextended and drowning and why she can’t do the core things she used to do. [I want to now pause to apologize for trying to kill my grantees, I didn’t mean it. It was out of admiration for your talent.]
What happens when national foundations discover hot intermediary organizations to help them make grants and run programs? The same thing, every foundation invests in those few for all their work and then those organizations become overextended and start to drown not able to do the basics well any more.
Sometimes there is an executive director who says no thanks to the money but it’s not easy to say no to millions when you aren’t sure if by saying no now, you have ruined your chances forever with that foundation. The dating game between foundations and non-profits is awkward at best. It’s nice to be courted by the rich suitor and hard to say no when that large grant means the ability to hire new staff, pay the bills without worrying about writing more proposals for a while, becoming one of the “chosen” of an important foundation, and being able to take your work to scale.
That all sounds great but what I am still trying to figure out is can an organization maintain the same level of excellence if it is working with not just one foundation but if every foundation brings its large projects to bear on a single organization. Because now, there are the idiosyncrasies of each foundation to contend with: funding cycles differ, reports are due at different times, the kinds of data needed by each foundation are different, the way each foundation wants to be treated is completely different…And if you thought that is only in instances where each foundation is funding a different project, think again. Even when foundations come together to fund projects, each foundation may still have its own requirements. So, yes, an organization may have more staff but it must also spend a lot of time killing itself responding to the various needs of the various foundations. When and how can any work get done?
Maybe it is time for foundations to do what we have asked of our grantees. Maybe we should start to work together so that we can give but make it OK non-profits to say no when they have reached capacity. Maybe we can work together to have common reporting requirements, at least when we jointly fund projects. Otherwise, I do think we are going to kill our grantees and we need them perhaps more than they need us.