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PEAK Grantmaking

Over-Asking is For the Birds

Dear Dr. Streamline,
Today a funder program officer came for a site visit and asked us many of the very same questions we’d diligently answered in our proposal. Our answers – pretty much verbatim recaps – didn’t seem to ring bells, either. Is there some reason a foundation would ask for a proposal but not read it?

– Unrecognized Mynah Bird

Dear Bird,
Your letter reminds me of the nonprofit program director whose frustration boiled over about having to create a plan as part a proposal that only the foundation, not the practitioners, would ever use. She succinctly answered one question about when the plan would be implemented: “When pigs fly.” No questions were asked. Her organization received the grant. I’d say this was a perfect purse from the proverbial sow’s ear, no?

But of course an eminence such as Dr. Streamline would never encourage such shenanigans!

This issue of written material going unread tends to come up more often in relation so grant reports than grant requests. Many grantee organizations report zero evidence that what they’ve sent goes anywhere but a big fiery furnace. And they’re often right. Most grantees report that they have never had a funder discuss a report with them. Past research from Project Streamline and others has noted that only about half of funders said they used reports for internal decision-making purposes, and only about a quarter shared information from grantee reports outside foundation walls.

Not reading what’s been required is of course rude and counter-productive. Those who care about providing resources for great work by NPOs shouldn’t be stripping capacity by wasting their time and other resources. No one (almost no one, anyway) wants to be that funder.

The standard here – and it’s one that needs to be revisited regularly – is to whittle down written requirements to the true minimum: what is absolutely needed from every applicant at the time of application (or LOI or report). Anything else can be requested later, in conversation, or not at all.

Yes, there often is that one Board member who likes to know that extra little something. It’s reasonable for funders to practice their smiles and agreed to follow-up to get that specific question answered – but only after the review process is mostly done and funding is about to the awarded. Otherwise, no.

The minimum should also be assessed against the question: what can our staff read and analyze to make a good decision? If more is required than that, to what end?

Bird, you’re right. There is no excuse for a funder asking for information that isn’t read. I hope you find a way to give feedback to the foundation about this – anonymously or otherwise.

Yours truly,
Dr. Streamline

Dr. Streamline is Jessica Bearman of Bearman Consulting, LLC. She provides facilitation, organization development, and research and development to help grantmakers and other mission-focused organizations align strategy, practice, and culture for greater effectiveness, equity, and joy.