You Never Know
Wednesday, July 6, 2005
by Tony Silbert
There is an axiom in the grant profession, oft-repeated (at least by me) that goes, “If you’ve seen one foundation, you’ve seen one foundation.” The saying captures the heterogeneity of grant makers and the difficulty with making generalities about how they behave or see the world. In recent years, I’ve come to wonder if it is true. I wonder if you can really even know one foundation.
As a grant seeker, it is important to recognize that, despite the many helpful “what-grantors-want” articles, institutional funders are not only idiosyncratic as a group, they can be downright unpredictable individually. The reason for this is simple. Behind the monolithic façade that we ascribe to institutions and groups of institutions (i.e., industries), there lie human beings. Furthermore, the individuals who operate the grant making machinery – subject to the full range of human fallibilities themselves – must work in concert with other, equally fallible humans. This results in a highly dynamic environment that requires consistent engagement – one that will inevitably yield surprises.
Here are some of the “lessons” I have learned from quirky encounters with grant makers.
- Transitions can open opportunities. An organization that had been repeatedly rejected by a major local funder finally got a grant. Why? The foundation was in a leadership transition at the same time the program officer assigned to the organization was in her last days. I thought all was lost when the program officer did not show up for the site visit, and then never rescheduled. Clearly, chaos was reigning there at this time. But, they still had to get the grant money out the door and, for some reason, it worked in our favor. Next time we applied, we were rejected again.
- Transitions can close opportunities. Following up on a rejection, I came to learn that a large, international foundation with 400+ employees pre-spent all of its funding in one program area all because a single staff person in that area left for another job. They anticipated a nine month process to fill the position, during which no requests would be considered.
- Past performance is no guarantee of future results. A major funder had made several capital gifts to an organization. Imagine our dismay when a contingent from the organization was told in the first five minutes of our pitch meeting the foundation no longer did capital. Turns out they had quietly changed the guidelines for one area of their giving – even as the organization was spending the foundation’s money on the newly forbidden purpose.
- Bad performance is no guarantee of future results. Following up on a letter of inquiry six months after submission, I found out the foundation had no record of receiving it. This was frustrating because in the interim they had developed a whole new set of formal guidelines – and we did not fit at all. Nevertheless, since we had some prior contact with the foundation’s primary donor, the foundation president half-heartedly allowed us to re-submit. The foundation rejected us, but we received a grant from the donor’s advised fund at the local community foundation – something we did not even know existed.
- The government is responsive… The statewide Library Services Technology Act program rejected our proposal because it was not really what they envisioned funding under the request for applications. However, due to the enormous demand for the type of project we proposed, they revised their guidelines and issued a new RFA for just what we wanted to do.
- …except when it’s not. Does anyone remember the Department of Education’s Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education (FIPSE)? In 1999, the entire responsive grant program was scrubbed in mid stream (i.e., after concept letters were submitted) when legislators decided to earmark all of the funds for their pet projects. It happened again this past year.
- Even program officers have to learn their job… A program officer at a large national foundation called to say they just needed a few minor items (501 (c)(3) letter, etc.) to process the award. It was a small request and fell within the discretionary limits of the program staff. We were surprised then by the rejection letter that followed. Turned out the program officer did not have quite as much discretion as she perceived.
- …and, as they will surely tell you, they do not make the final decisions. Following up on a rejection, a program officer told me they really could not fund the organization this year – shrunken endowment, too many years of continuous support, not interested in the project, etc. Imagine our surprise when a big check arrived just a couple of months later – a gift directed by one of the foundation’s board members under their discretionary powers.
The point of these anecdotes is to demonstrate the truly unpredictable nature of grant seeking. Reversals of fortune may not be common, but they are not that rare either. One organization received a formal rejection letter from a corporate foundation, followed within three weeks with an award letter and check – no explanation. Even with the most diligent research and well-cultivated relationships, you never really know what kind of work environment your proposal is entering. Expect the unexpected and, pardon the pun, take nothing for granted.
Mr. Wells is joined by a body of contributors who are well-respected leaders, observers, and pundits in the field.
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