June 15th, 2017
This week alone, I attended four different events where both funders and organizational leaders were present. I report this so that no one [except, perhaps, those few about whom I am writing] will be able to figure out who this is about or even at which events what I am about to describe occurred.
Putting funders and organizational leaders in the same room has wonderful benefits. For funders to make good decisions, we need to find settings, other than grant proposals and site visits, to learn what is going on. Moreover, being in a larger setting makes it easier to get a sense of field wide developments, compare different methodologies and approaches, and contrast what are still innovations with evidence based projects, and all of this independent of the pressing need to make funding decisions.
Such settings also create the opportunity for direct communication. The very chance for informal and corridor connection can enable safe interchange and allow the development of authentic “relationships” based on common interests. When a funder/potential grantee only meet in the context of submitting or considering a grant, that is, by definition, an uneven and loaded relationship. When meetings happen outside of that lopsided interaction, it is always possible that a different kind of shared experience can emerge.
At the same time, that intimacy has a risk. It means that those who want funds feel that they now have direct access and can make their pitch without the structured gateways of a grant request. There is, alas, the potential for a trespass; for someone who wants funding, it too often unleashes the worst fundraising instincts.
These examples from this week:
• A funder spoke on a panel and, in his/her presentation spoke about how uncomfortable s/he is often made by those who want funds from the family foundation. S/he made explicitly clear that they do not accept unsolicited proposals and had trepidations about even sitting on the panel because of the experience of being overwhelmed by folks asking for money. Sure, enough, immediately afterwards, people lined up to tell their story and to give proposals as if the public words were simply teases. [The speaker told me privately afterwards that it reinforced why he/she typically turns down these kinds of requests to speak.]
• Someone whom I had never met approached me. The very first – and only -words he said “are you a funder? I only want to meet funders.” How do you think I replied?
• I was talking to an old friend who happens to be the CEO of a prominent foundation. While we were speaking, someone who heads a ngo/nfp approached, interrupted and immediately launched into a very aggressive pitch about why the foundation should be funding them. The foundation CEO kept trying to end the conversation and walked away. The petitioner didn’t stop and kept following her/him.
Those of us on the funding side are well acquainted with all of this. We know that we are walking dollar or euro signs. We know that anytime we walk into a room, someone or several someones will find an occasion to say “hmm, let me tell you about my organization/project/cause…” In my case, because I advise and teach many funders and foundations, they often go further and ask if I can give them a list of people they can approach – or to whom I can introduce them.
We are used to this and those of us who have been in this field for a long time learn different ways of dealing with it. It goes with the territory. But…
It never endears the petitioner to us. It never develops the pseudo relationship the fund-seeker desires. And the likelihood of it ever yielding funding is so minuscule that it is surely not worth the effort.
There are many, many legitimate needs in this world. And, sadly, the list grows and the needs grow. Most of those who deliver services and therefore ask for funds are working tirelessly to address those needs. Most are correct that they need more support.
For many, they look at the net worth of a funder or the corpus of a foundation and say to themselves that those funders can certainly afford to give money to their cause or organization.
Funders agree that there are many more legitimate needs than any funder can or should fund. Most, though, have given serious thought to our priorities and determined where we can use our resources most effectively, and in ways consistent with our own values and priorities. That is hard work. And it can be painful to not fund something that cries out for funding. Those seeking funds may not agree with our priorities and wish that we would change our minds. [When I was CEO of a foundation, there were many times when those who didn’t get funded would call angrily to request or even demand a meeting with the board to reconsider. They were convinced that the decision was because no one told their story properly.]
Please take funders at our words: we know our role and the vast majority of us try to play fair, are sympathetic and caring, and want to use precious resources wisely and thoughtfully. Not taking us at our word or respecting our guidelines or violating our space doesn’t help your cause, and doesn’t make us more sympathetic.
We know it is hard. But please, take a deep breath and think about how you are coming across. Those moments of possible connection that may lead to relationship don’t happen all the time; try not to blow them.