Foundation Friday: Words from the wise

Lots of good conversation and information at yesterday’s Chicago Women in Philanthropy panel discussion “When Bad Things Happen to Good Nonprofits: How to Work Through It With Your Funder.” Among the highlights:

  • Advice from Melissa Howard of the Christian Community Health Center: make sure your nonprofit’s program professionals are well-represented on community task forces and committees. These are opportunities for funders to get to know members of your agency as people standing shoulder to shoulder with them rather than people kneeling in front of them. (The Nonprofiteer’s phrasing, not Ms. Howard’s.) Also, if you have to tell a funder that you didn’t spend its grant timely, tell the program officer sooner rather than later: an early warning makes it possible for the funder to reallocate the current grant even as you’re applying for the next one, while last-minute notice means the best you can hope for is an extension, which in turn means missing the next funding cycle.
  • Home truths from Sharon Bush of the Lloyd Fry Foundation: communication between grantees and funders is essential, but the top three elements in building a strong relationship with your funder are a) a strong track record in your substantive field, b) a willingness to discuss not only your successes but your “challenges” (that would be failures), because those can be a basis for redirected or increased support, and c) an ability to learn from your mistakes: stop doing stuff that hasn’t succeeded. Ms. Bush also noted that funders need to be transparent about a philanthropy’s immediate and/or shifting priorities, which may not be reflected in the formal guidelines. In a related note, she cautioned grantees against announcing to her that their project fits perfectly into her guidelines: it’s better to say “It appears . . . ” but maintain appropriate humility given that the decision is hers and her Board’s. (Again, the wording is the Nonprofiteer’s.)
  • An acronym about funder relations from Brenda Palms Barber of the North Lawndale Employment Network: BAGTAN. Use credible BOARD members to speak with foundations; develop an AUTHENTIC relationship with funders which takes into account how the grantees can help the grantors accomplish their goals; GET HELP necessary to operate your agency appropriately; TALK with program officers to secure their advice; ANTICIPATE their questions and have some strategies in mind for responding; and know your NUMBERS (financial and programmatic) to give funders the calming sense that you know what you’re doing and are under control, even when you’re in some sort of crisis.
  • A reminder from Debbie Reznick, Senior Program Officer at the Polk Bros. Foundation, that program officers have two roles–not only to help nonprofits get money but to help their own Boards find projects that match the philanthropy’s guidelines. Nonprofits invest a lot of energy in trying to persuade her, but she may not be the one who needs persuading. (Asked if and how nonprofits could reach out to her Board, she suggested participation on those same community task forces and committees Ms. Howard had mentioned. Ms. Bush noted that in her view nonprofits shouldn’t reach out to foundation Boards: they pay program officers to filter that kind of input.) Ms. Reznick also had a word to say about evaluation: “The best site visits include statements about what [grantees] want to change. We don’t always have to find something new but we want to see that you’re learning. Don’t ask what we want to know–we want to know what you want to know.”

Ms. Rezneck provided the pithy summary: “It’s the quality of the work and the measures of results, not the personal relationship with the program officer,” which dictates whether or not a grantseeker will succeed.


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