Declines: The Necessary Evil

Normally, after one grant cycle concludes, acceptance letters as well as declination letters get mailed. When my grantees receive acceptance letters they’re so excited and grateful, their thank-you calls make my day. The recipients of the declination letters……not so much. I find myself fumbling and being put on the defensive as to why we didn’t fund this or that program. In my tenure as a program officer, I have been on the receiving end of a few not-so-pleasant phone calls. To prevent them from getting under my skin, I started categorizing them:

  • Immediate declines. This is very succinct: The proposed program just did not fit within our guidelines. Do not pass “GO” and do not collect $200.
  • “Maybe but…….” With these we weigh the qualitative component of the proposal and ask a few pertinent questions: Is this organization the strongest and the best to undertake this program? If other organizations are doing similar work, why reinvent the wheel? This came up with a recent decline and the organization phoned me. They proposed a capacity grant for an advocacy and policy staff position. A noble enough endeavor to be sure. But I had to point out that two much larger and better equipped organizations in the city were doing the same work with a stronger policy team. This organization seemed surprised when I mentioned this bit of information. But she was very understanding of our position and thanked me for taking the time to explain the declination. This was actually one of the nicer calls I received.
  • Don’t shoot the messenger. These are declines from our board of directors. At this point I have done all I can to get a program funded but, for whatever reason, our board decided otherwise. It is truly out of my hands.
  • Blind-sided declines. These declines are the toughest. These proposals have you the most invested emotionally because you have built a relationship with the potential grantee. After all due diligence is performed and it passes the staff vetting process, something crops up that you could not have anticipated. This was the type of call I received about a week ago. This organization had proposed a phenomenal science education program for disadvantaged youth. It was the kind of program that had me more excited than any other I had participated in before. They were partnering with another local non-profit which was to provide them with the teaching staff needed to carry out said program. Unfortunately, disturbing news came to light about this partner organization’s financial stability. My Executive Director said it was my call. So, due to the questionable circumstances and the current economic climate, I decided it was not prudent to move forward with this grant. Fortunately, the grantee understood my foundation’s position. I think it upset me more than it did her.

With so many nonprofits chasing so few dollars, it’s impossible to fund every worthy proposal that lands in my lap. With the economy circling the drain, a staggering number of organizations desperately need foundation dollars to fund the vital services that often fall by the wayside in down economies. I am proud of the fact my foundation has decided to maintain our level of giving as much as possible.

I still believe my days of saying “no” have just begun.

Paulette Pierre is a Program Officer intern at The Field Foundation of Illinois. She has a graduate certificate in Non-Profit Management and Philanthropy from Loyola University and is currently pursuing her MA in Interdisciplinary Studies at DePaul University.