Grant seekers should focus ask on fit with grantmaker’s mission and goals
Special to Philanthropy Journal
I am sort of an odd duck in philanthropy circles. About a year ago, I left a job running a small election reform nonprofit to take a job as executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, a charitable foundation based in Raleigh, N.C.
I don't think career shifts like mine are common. Most of my peers don't go directly from a grant-seeking organization to running a foundation. Sure, there are a lot of people who have some background in the nonprofit sector, but the culture shock that comes from being on one side of the ask and suddenly thrust onto the opposite side makes for a unique perspective.
From this new vantage point, I am not only learning about grantmaking, but also developing keen insight into the do's and don'ts of the grant-seeking process. In writing occasional posts for Philanthropy Journal, I aim to share some of what I've learned to help those who interface with foundations as part of their job in the nonprofit sector. I hope that my perspective will prove useful, and that my insights help to shed some light on how everyone in the sector can better work together.
There is no avoiding the fact that there is a power imbalance between foundations and those who seek funds from them. While we might all be on the same page when it comes to the societal goals we seek to achieve, the way in which we go about that work is very different. The inclination is to not discuss it, or perhaps make light of it.
The bottom line is that grantmakers have a responsibility to determine whether it makes sense to move resources out of their organization and into yours. It's never an easy task to make these decisions, but it is essential to know whether an applicant’s mission and strategic plan aligns with our goals.
I'm not an expert on the issues we fund, and I find it refreshing when grant seekers don't ask to "pick my brain" or "get some advice." The fact that it's now my responsibility to help decide where resources in the nonprofit sector are spent does not make me smarter, more capable or uniquely qualified to do so.
It's useful to also recognize that foundations have very few external accountability mechanisms. The market doesn't shape our "product" like it would in the private sector, and the media and public opinion are rarely going to scrutinize the charitable impulses of an organization. Therefore, we must strive exceedingly hard to hold ourselves internally accountable. Our vision for how things ought to be might not be as tight or as focused as the nonprofits we fund, but our priorities come from deeply held convictions about how the world works.
Most grantmakers I know are not weighing proposal against one another to see which one is best. Grant seekers can help their case the most by conducting research to truly understand what a foundaiton is trying to achieve and to see if their own work fits into that vision.
I value this approach far more than the overall worthiness of a proposal. All of the organizations I have met with in the first year of my work at AJF are worthy. For me, the decision is all about fit.
Lastly, although a trend in philanthropy is to focus increasingly on data collection and using metrics to guide grantmaking, we all still understand that the lion's share of funds that go out our door are used to fund people. A grant proposal might be spot on--it might be crafted so well that it is used as an example in a nonprofit development class--but at the end of the day, we are in the business of making investments in people, and building trust and a relationship between parties is essential.
Our foundation is not staffed or organized to change the world ourselves. We know our role. We make the investments and the nonprofits, through their excellent leaders and staff, carry out the valuable, world-changing work.
Damon Circosta is the executive director of the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, whose mission is to support nonprofit organizations in their endeavors to enrich the lives and well-being of people in North Carolina.