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

An Insider’s Take: Are Today’s Charitable Foundations Pulling Their Weight? (Part Two)

We recently sat down with Martin Teitel, Executive Director of Boston’s Cedar Tree Foundation and author of Thank You for Submitting Your Proposal, published by Emerson & Church. We posed to him a range of questions about the performance of today’s charitable foundations.

It seems foundations squander their resources and effectiveness when they focus on the short-term by working with most grantees for only one or two years. Is this a fair assessment?

Is earthquake relief in Haiti squandering? Are rape crisis centers a waste of money? Strategies and tactics need to match problems – whether short or long term.

That said, there can be proposal fatigue after funding something for a while.

When I’ve gone back to my board with the same project year after year, and there’s a competing proposal on the docket that seems fresh and exciting, I know the old stand-by could be in trouble.

It also seems worth pointing out that infidelity to familiar ideas is often found on the boards of the nonprofits that seek funding. Sometimes we drop a group that hasn’t been able to change its program as the needs they address evolve. Frustrated staff tell me, their board won’t let them, because of caution and a built-in constituency for a certain type of tactic or program.

Maybe the only remedy for the human yearning for novelty is to carefully make the case for the effectiveness of work accomplished over time.

Countless organizations submit proposals and months later get a vague and polite letter of rejection. It's the vagueness that's frustrating. It's almost as if foundations won't tell you the real reason your proposal was rejected. Why is this?

Saying no euphemistically is part of most rejection – people screening films for film festivals, banks considering loans, nervous teenagers trying for a prom date.

As a funder, I have two reasons for perpetrating fuzzy prose. The smaller of the reasons is that it’s much cheaper, faster, and easier to send out a form letter, rather than to create a special letter for each person rejected.

The more compelling reason, for me, is when I’ve tried telling people the “real” reason, I’ve almost always found it a waste of time and an exercise in frustration. People get defensive, angry, argumentative – and there doesn’t seem to be an end to the conversation.

Here’s a compromise I’ve tried to get my staff to use over many years. We first send out the much-mocked form letters – which by the way we are continually tweaking to convey a tone of respect, regret, and finality. If the staff person is then speaking with the grantee, they follow this three-part formula: Empathy, Information, Termination.

1) Empathy. By this I mean a brief, non-patronizing statement about feelings. Not “I know how you feel,” but more along the lines of, “I’m sorry this didn’t work out, it must be very disappointing.” We start by acknowledging there are passions involved here.

2) Information. The foundation staffer should provide a reason for the rejection. This is the hardest part to do well, because sometimes the reason is, we thought the strategy was dumb, or we didn’t think the organization had the competence, or some other harsh-sounding judgment. So like parents at a 4th grade class’s rendition of Macbeth, we struggle to find something to say that rings true, but doesn’t devastate.

3) Termination. This is the key. Having tried to show some human feelings and to provide a reason for the rejection – we thank the person for calling and hang up the phone. Knowing the caller may have paid good money at a workshop for the (counterproductive) advice to keep a funder on the phone at all costs, this can be a struggle. But failure to keep it short is how the conversation can quickly degenerate into recrimination and worse – to everyone’s detriment.

If in your proposal you discuss your organization’s vulnerabilities and detail of the challenges you face, won't your words inevitably be used against you?

Absolutely. If a teen going out on a date says, I tend to drive too fast and put my hand on my date’s knee after ten minutes, or if a prospective employee says, I steal from the supply closet whenever we run out of Scotch tape at home – where will that lead?

The key is to indicate that your organization has its feet on the ground and learns from things that didn’t turn out as planned. For example, a project report (and we do read them, by the way) might say, “We underestimated the need for our project during the first six months because we only had access to five-year-old census data.” That’s a reasonable justification for a project that had to turn away 60 qualified participants. Contrast this with saying, “We only served half the people we had planned to.”

There is a fine line between being honest and forthcoming, and using red flag and inflammatory words.

If you leave out something entirely that went wrong and the funder finds out, you can kiss that grant – and possibly your reputation with funders - good-bye. So be honest, but also be sensible and realistic.

What chance does a nonprofit serving its local community have in securing funding from a major foundation?

Almost none, I suspect, and this is a good thing. In the ecology of grant seekers and grant makers, appropriateness of scale is a good idea. This is why nature shows on public TV don’t show housecats running down wildebeests on the Serengeti – lions do that job, while house cats chase mice.

I don’t see the downside to the question of scale. Local funders know their community, the players, the problems, the strategies that have worked in their area – they are the ones best equipped to help local groups. Even so, my own national foundation gets inquiries and proposals all the time from small locally-focused nonprofits. All these do is waste resources.

To be fair, I think that the responsibility for mis-aimed funding requests is a shared one. Some lazy fundraisers don’t do their homework. And some foundations, including mine, aren’t consistently clear enough in stating in public what we will and will not consider.

And by the way, local groups often claim their work is national because someone could replicate it. Or even that they plan to write a report and post it on their website.

In more than 30 years as a funder, I haven’t seen the claim of being a model work out … ever. Everyone is a model for the rest of the world, just as my kids are model children.

With the mountain of proposals foundations receive, if the summary doesn’t immediately capture attention is the proposal doomed?

Yes.

If you’re in a bookstore, do you buy a book without looking at the blurb on the back, or reading the summary on Amazon? It’s not realistic to think that foundation staff sit there and carefully read every word of every submission.

My advice: You probably can’t obsess too much about the quality of the proposal summary, because that’s what decides if your proposal itself will be read.

 

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