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.

Every Little Bit Helps

I just read this great post from the Minnesota Council of Foundations about a new fundraising campaign of the United Way. I think that small gifts, driven by social networking, will be the new lifeblood of nonprofits. We can't keep tapping the same donors (especially since capital gains are so 2007) and expect to keep up the same level of work. The needs in our communities are greater and we to think about new ways of engaging individuals and their networks in our work. From MCF:

The Greater Twin Cities United Way is experimenting with a new way of raising money. Instead of relying on a few people to give large donations, they’re asking a lot of people to give a little — just $5.

The Give5Now campaign is a one-minute video that shows how people can use a small contribution to make a big impact:

  • One person gives $5 to help people in need
  • … then passes the message to 5 friends, who each also give $5
  • The “ripple effect” will be felt across the Twin Cites

The simple website — just the video and a “click here to Give5 now” button — is an effort to take advantage of technology that allows individuals to spread the message on social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. “Giving trends show that young people, in particular, are more likely to give small donations online that respond to immediate causes,” said the United Way’s Randi Yoder.

Is trailblazing just common sense on steroids?

One of my friends on Linked In sent me a great article about the former President of the Peninsula Community Foundation, which is now the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and run by another trailblazer Emmett Carson. Bill Somerville now runs the Philanthropic Ventures Foundation and uses a process called "paperless giving" to make his grant decisions. Paperless giving involves him spending time in the community, listening to people impacted by community issues, and finding people with innovative solutions. He then gives money in 48 hours or less to support projects that look like they have potential. "I'm trying to push the envelope of philanthropy - most foundations are paralyzed in bureaucracies of their own making," he said recently, over a meal of meat loaf, curry pilaf and steamed vegetables at the St. Anthony of Padua soup kitchen in Menlo Park.

I loved the article and I think Somerville has a great approach but it made me wonder, since when does common sense giving get you a full spread in the San Francisco Chronicle? I am hoping for a day when good decision-making and less bureaucracy by foundations is a non-story but until then, check out the article here.

Trista Harris you are not as smart, funny, or as helpful as you think you are.

That was my humbling revelation last week after our foundation received our Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) Grantee Perception Report. When I first started philanthropy work and this blog, I gave advice for foundation staff not to get caught in the hype of their positions. The CEP data was a good reminder for me to follow my own advice.

First a little background on the data. CEP offers individual foundations the opportunity to assess performance on key dimensions relative to other foundations. The survey also asks very informative questions of grantees about their program officer's ability to clarify the grant application process and the foundation's reputation in the community.

We received our grantee satisfaction data by program officer and in some of the measures I received a score I haven't seen since 5th grade math, a "below average" or more specifically a "below foundation average". For my own self esteem I will say that our foundation's performance on the study was amazing and I am part of an extremely talented program staff with many years of philanthropic experience. Half of us had to get a below average on each measure or else it wouldn't be an average. But still, seeing a below average score is a much needed humbling experience for any program officer.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy has set the data up in a way that makes it easy for staff to see where they can make tangible improvements to how they interact with grantees. Effective and sensitive interactions with grantees is a responsibility of every program officer and the CEP survey is a tool that can help all of us do our work better.

Have you used the CEP tool or a similar evaluation and how did the results change your work?