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How-to Library • Featuring articles from past issues of Contributions

From the Inside Out

by Martin Teitel

Science fiction is full of first contact stories.

Most popular are those Star Trek episodes in which humans meet beings from an alien civilization. 
The inevitable mayhem usually illustrates the danger posed by creatures with radically different priorities, and usually greater power. 

In first contact between grant seekers and foundations, gatekeepers like me play the role of bug-eyed monster: we're alien, difficult to understand, and possibly dangerous. 

Since the initial encounter between us can be the start of a lengthy, frustrating and unproductive series of interactions, I'd like to take a look at how you and I typically begin our communication, and how we might improve it.

The multi-billion foundation industry is almost entirely unregulated – at least from a consumer’s point of view – so there is little consistency in the behavior from one foundation to the next.

of related interest

OF RELATED INTEREST: In Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, Martin Teitel, the ultimate insider and head of a foundation himself, reveals just what happens when the proposal over which you've labored lands on a funder's desk.

The great size disparity among foundations contributes to this individualism, since your experience of contacting the Ford Foundation versus trying to get in touch with a tiny local family foundation will vary a great deal. But we can generalize somewhat:

For most people, trying to speak with someone at a foundation ranges from annoying to immensely frustrating, at its worst almost on a par with calling a cable TV or credit card company.

Yet unlike those heartless businesses, we funders are spending public benefit money on behalf of society. Operating for “educational, scientific and charitable” purposes, we actually can’t meet our legal requirements for grantmaking without someone to give our money to. That’s you, the grantee. But good luck trying to get me on the phone.

Let’s look into this problem of the first contact, often called “getting in the door,” because it is frequently the only contact between grant seekers and funders. Over the years, I’ve had many discussions with grantees about our mutual frustration here. If we were to create the prototypical frank conversation between a grant seeker and a foundation funder, it would go something like this:

Anita Grant: “I’ve been leaving messages for you for three weeks now, and you don’t even have the manners to call me back.”

Buck Stopper: “You folks want to have it both ways – you think I should pay careful attention to all your grant applications, but also always be available to chat at length with every Tom, Dick and Anita who can afford the cost of a foundation directory.”

Anita Grant: “How can you even do your job if you don’t speak with people who are on the front lines?

Buck Stopper: “Actually, Ms. Grant, I read the same newspapers and websites that you do, I speak with many of your colleagues, and even go to many of the same meetings you do. Why do grantees assume that funders are idiots?”

Anita Grant: “Leaving that last question to answer itself, Mr. Stopper, I want to point out that your attitude is just what makes getting funding so difficult. You think you know it all, but in fact your view of current problems is out of date and your notion of change-oriented strategies is way too general. How can your foundation learn what’re the most important issues to attend to, if you won’t even speak with the people who are actually doing the work. You say you talk with people in the field, but you haven’t talked with me.”

Buck Stopper: “Invariably, people call me up claiming to teach me all about the great problems of our day, but when I do get on the phone, all I get is a useless pitch to give them the money instead of someone else. I say ‘useless” since a simple perusal of our guidelines would tell you that we just don’t fund what you do.”

Anita Grant: “There it is in a nutshell: your guidelines, put together by some mysterious process that outsiders can’t know, yet somehow defining reality. That’s why social change is so slow, because real innovation is squelched by money gatekeepers like you.”

Let’s leave Anita and Buck to their bickering, and have a look at some of the useful points in this dialogue. I think in fact both the grantee and the funder have some good ideas to offer us, and yet neither have it quite right.

Let’s start with the apparent cluelessness of us funders. While there is great diversity in the funding business, as in any other, I know some terribly smart and well-informed funders. Foundations can afford to hire well-qualified people, and the generous and regular pay and benefits can attract and hold some talent. Like most of my colleagues, I put a good deal of time into learning the ins and outs of the issues we fund – if for no other reason that my board holds me accountable for a high level of performance in this among other areas.

And I am indeed busy. I sometimes feel frustrated that grantees want us to give away the maximum amount of money we can, and yet seem resentful that we don’t have more staff to handle their inquiries and other requests more rapidly. Foundation overhead is taken directly from money that could otherwise be granted.

My third justification for tight screening and selective responses to inquiries is how many of the attempts to contact me are misdirected. Why do people put so much energy into hounding the executive director of a foundation to tell them if their proposal was received, when he is literally the last person in his office to know this? Yet they barge right past the person answering the phone, who in the case of my office speaks several languages, has a graduate degree, and knows where everything in the office is?

OK, now it’s the grantee’s turn. Anita is frustrated at least in part by a funder who claims to know more than she is sure he knows. How do funders ever expect to learn anything if they act like the world is defined by their musty guidelines? We may have degrees and other qualifications that will land us a foundation job, but we’re on the sidelines by definition, and people are way too afraid of the financial consequences of straight talk, to argue with funder’s sometimes kooky ideas.

And Anita might go on, if the person answering the phone is so great, how come you don’t let her tell me anything? And you always pull out that old saw about overhead coming out of my grant. Just throttle back your lush fringe benefits and excellent salary to something like what we people in the trenches get, and you’ll be able to afford all the help you need. And you don’t need a brigade-sized staff to be polite to people who get in touch with you – anyone can have manners.

Clearly, there are good points on both sides. Here is my list of improvements that wouldn’t take a revolution on anyone’s part to implement, just some attention and will power.

Guidelines for funders to follow:

  • A written commitment, backed up by training and evaluation, to a consumer-oriented communication culture. This means, no one in the foundation is allowed to act high and mighty, abrupt, rude, and superior.
  • Publication of the guidelines and standards that are used to screen grant requests.
  • Publication of the foundation’s staff list, with indications of who should be contacted for what business, and how to do that.
  • A willingness to listen to ideas that someone else thought of first.

Requests for grant seekers:

  • A promise to read a foundation’s guidelines before contacting them, and to not contact funders who fund other things.
  • A willingness to speak with whatever person is designated by the foundation as their contact.
  • An unswerving commitment to treating everyone at a foundation with courtesy, not just those who appear to make funding decisions
  • A willingness to take ‘no’ for an answer.

I don’t think any of us are going to get it right all the time. Our respective roles will always lead to a certain tension, and a difficulty in achieving frank and open communication. But I think that both funders and grantees can do a lot to hone how we handle our interactions to make it less onerous for all concerned.

In closing, I want to tell you what happened when I asked my wife, who’s the best fundraiser I ever met, about her experiences trying to get into foundation doors. Over lunch one Saturday, she regaled me with stories of how she pushed past screeners, got herself invited to parties she knew would be attended by funders, volunteered for certain committees, and other stratagems to put herself in front of the people who decide which proposals get accepted.

Then I asked her how these tactics worked. Did it lead to grants?

She paused with her fork up in the air, staring into space for a moment. “Actually, no,” she said. “Never.”

Martin Teitel
Martin Teitel is Executive Director of the Cedar Tree Foundation, a private foundation and the author of Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, by Emerson & Church. Previously he served as Senior Fellow and Executive Director of the CS Fund, a philanthropic foundation, and also Western Field Director for a public charity, The Youth Project.

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