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PEAK Grantmaking

Advice from Your Grantmaking Peers: Avoid These Pitfalls

It’s difficult to navigate all the grantmaking Do’s and Don’ts when trying to balance budgets, grantee relationships, grant cycles, and your day-to-day tasks – all while trying to focus on the bigger picture…your mission. With restrained resources and an ever growing need for funding, sometimes it’s all you can do to put your head down and get through to the next project. But the philanthropic sector is a strong community, and always willing to share experiences and help peers. Our grantmaker community did just that when they spilled about their own experiences. Take a tip from your peers and avoid these pitfalls:

Being Unadaptable

Rigidity in your processes and routines can be a downfall for funders because it stifles creativity and makes you adverse to change…even when it’s the best possible solution. In our constantly changing philanthropic landscape, it is important to create processes and routines that are easily modified. By continually evaluating and adjusting your routines, you will ensure more efficient and streamlined processes for your organization.

-Don’t get so stuck in process and routine that you are rigid and inflexible to the needs of the community. -Christine Mulvin, The HealthPath Foundation of Ohio

-Evaluation is great, but really think about your capacity and the capacity of your grantees to gather data and analyze it. Ask yourself how important the numbers are and what they really mean…and how you’re going to use them.  -Amy Hyfield, O.P. & W.E. Edwards Foundation

The good news is, there is a community of funders, nonprofits and leaders who offer resources and tools to becoming adaptable.

Exponent Philanthropy provides a Perception Survey, offering your foundation a structured opportunity to learn from grantees and applicants, identify areas of strength and opportunities for improvement, and set up your board and staff for productive conversations to increase your foundation’s effectiveness.

Evaluation gives us an opportunity to take stock of what’s working. But when we adopt a learning mindset focused on continual improvement, we can use evaluation for more than just an accountability measure.

Lack of Strategy

Trying to implement a process without a strategy is like going on a road trip without a map…you end up confused and frustrated. Having a plan in place makes it easier for your staff and stakeholders,  and also ensures things are done correctly and keeps everyone on board. Having direction and purpose gives everyone the confidence needed to be successful in their jobs and will boost your grantmaking abilities.

You can’t be everything to everyone, be strategic with some of your funds and tie it to your business. -Stacey Chiocchio, Hypertherm HOPE Foundation

A defined set of goals can help give purpose to all involved parties, signal importance, and provide broader and deeper outcomes. Here are some useful resources to allow you to jump in and create a strategic plan of your own:

Being Greedy

Grantees have enough on their plates. By requesting only necessary information, you are not only decreasing the burden for grantees, but for yourself as well. Start by envisioning how the information will be used and remember that less is more. By being strategic with your questions, you will be able to identify qualified grantees more efficiently.

I think it’s important to know what information is important to your organization and not ask too many superfluous questions that aren’t actual important to you and you don’t want to read. Basically, less is more, as long as you are smart about what you ask. -Rebecka Manglanathan, Sampson Foundation

Don’t ask for more than you need. Think about how you are going to use the information in the front-end. -Catherine Luce, Maine Health Access Foundation

If starting fresh in GLM [or any grants management solution], don’t just recreate a bad process in the system! Make your process the most efficient it can be and then implement it. Make sure you are collecting only the correct and necessary information to not be a burden to grantees or yourself. Envision how you will use the information first and then build the process. -Kristin Summers, Saint Luke’s Foundation

Resources like Project Streamline are designed to help grantmakers streamline their grantmaking process. The cumulative impact of grantmakers’ distinct and often laborious application and reporting requirements undermines nonprofit effectiveness, causing grantseekers to devote too much time to seeking funding (often without payoff) and reporting on grants (often without benefit) to the detriment of their mission-based work.

Many grantmakers are seeking feedback to progress grantmaking practices. This commitment to streamline applications and reporting is reducing the burden on grantseekers.

Power Imbalanced

There is an unspoken power imbalance in the philanthropic industry, usually felt among grantees and one which can be a pitfall for grantmakers. Just because you may feel like you have the upper hand with grantees, don’t let it go to your head. Remember how hard they are working and be as supportive as possible.

Don’t make things more complicated than they need to be. Don’t get caught up in the adulation you receive from your grantees. Always be aware of the power imbalance. Foundation staff can begin to think that they are the smartest people in the room and that their jokes are all funny – because that is how they will be treated by grantees. But often times, foundation staff are not the smartest or funniest people in the room. Listen more. Don’t be a bull in a china shop when working with nonprofits. -Gretchen Schackel, James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation

For additional resources about the power imbalance among funders and grantees, check out this resource from Exponent Philanthropy.

You Can’t Be All The Things To All The People

One of the biggest pitfalls grantmakers fall into is trying to be everything to everyone. You know your organization and yourself better than anyone else so, while you should take others’ opinions into consideration, be objective with your decisions.

Trying to be all things to all people, stick to your mission and vision and do not fund things that fall outside of your mission. -Amy Nossaman, Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation

Being objective with your decisions means the word “No” will have to be in your arsenal. When saying no becomes a positive experience it becomes easier to focus the limited capacity your organization has. Check out how saying “no” can be a positive experience

Ignoring Unsustainable Practices

With every grant you award be sure you have the means to follow through. Be aware and cautious of your budget, especially when awarding multi-year grants to ensure you have money in years to come.

You should be cautious about multi year grants unless you know your budget can sustain it along with new grants that may come along. Be cautious about funding a high percentage of the total budget. Is it sustainable? -Stacey Chiocchio, Hypertherm HOPE Foundation

Enabling your organization to be sustainable for years to come is essential. Learn to determine what is successful, and what is not, to protect your capacity to deliver on your mission. Check out this resource from Foundation Center on Organizational Sustainability

Don’t Be A Follower

Many of us have been asked the infamous question, “If your friends jumped off a cliff, would you?” Just because it seems like everyone else is trying a new fad in philanthropy doesn’t mean it is right for your organization, and could end up being more costly to you in the long run. Instead, take the time to evaluate your organization and your processes; identify where you could change or tweak programs. Save yourself some headaches and pursue actions better aligned with your organization’s priorities.

Don’t create any process or procedure that you don’t have staff time or energy to compete- keep it simple! Don’t chase after the shiny new trend in philanthropy just because everyone else is doing it. Stay focused on serving the needs of your grantees. -Gretchen Schackel, James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation

You know your organization better than anyone else, but it can be difficult to not jump on the latest and greatest trend in philanthropy. Here are some resources to aid in focusing on your organization’s priorities through all the noise. In order to do this you must have well-established goals and objectives.

Being Complicated

Take time to identify how you can make things a little simpler for yourself or others. Only accept one form of your application, whether paper or online. Require applicants submit into the same system so you can keep track in one spot. Track only what is meaningful to your organization, and cut the rest!

Keep it simple and insist that applicants submit everything into the system. Helps with tracking and progress when you have multiple applicants in a process. -Deb Callies, City of Loveland

Use only one method of application. Do not accept both paper and electronic formats. Choose one or the other to streamline the work for Foundation employees and charities. -Frances Wilson, Acts of Grace Foundation

For additional resources about submission portals or how electronic formats can calm the chaos, check out these following resources:

Biting Off More Than You Can Chew

Bigger is not always better, so don’t feel like you need to tackle all the biggest projects, and especially not by yourself. Chances are, other organizations are working on similar projects, so reach out to collaborate or simply find out how others are doing it.

Don’t try to recreate the wheel and don’t try to accomplish big things by yourself. Most ideas are already being worked on by other organizations or funders, so partner with as many other funders, nonprofits, and leaders you can. Also, don’t be too risk averse. Funders often are quite conservative with their risk taking, which can stifle creativity and progress. -Mariko Sarafin, The Alaska Community Foundation

Here are some resources to find what other organizations and funders are doing in the industry.

  • Exponent Philanthropy Exponent Philanthropy has the country’s largest association of funders enabling them to provide programs, resources and a network that can maximize funders money and time, empowering philanthropists and amplifying their impact.
  • Foundation Center Foundation Center gathers extensive data and allows for foundations or nonprofits to develop practical solutions that can help achieve their mission. They apply their vast amounts of data to address questions and create knowledge that can be shared.
  • Grantmakers for Effective Organizations Grantmakers for Effective Organizations exists to help grantmakers turn their desire to improve into real progress.That’s the power of the GEO community. With more than 5,000 grantmakers across the globe, we work together to lift up the grantmaking practices that matter most to nonprofits and that truly improve philanthropy.

Pitfalls are called that for a reason, they are a “hidden or unsuspected danger or difficulty.” Learning from the experiences of others is the best way to avoid them. But, when we do fall into these “pits,” it’s also important to learn from them. Then, share that information with others!

This post is part of the Foundant Content Project, an initiative to share knowledge, experience, and ideas from our grantmaking and grantseeking communities with the sector.

Read more from the Foundant Content Project.