I know you worked hard over a long, long period of time to get that substantial grant from that great foundation. Your grant officer was attentive and worked with you every inch along the way to make sure that what you presented was not only doable, sustainable, a great investment for the foundation, but also a cutting-edge program that would take your organization to the next level.
You felt close to this person, this grant officer, through the bond that was forged while you were building your concept into a fundable structure for your grant. Hurrah! You can’t believe your luck at being gifted with this unique and awesome individual who cares so much about your program. You were funded and celebrated all the joy and success that goes with a completed proposal….wrote thank you notes galore and then all of a sudden accessibility to this person ceased, and you never heard another word except a quick letter/email requesting and reminding you that a report was due. Are you a little sad? Yes, and disappointed because your partner vanished. How do you feel about this?
A new report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy addressed this subject in an article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in March 2007.The premise of the article by Kevin Boldic, Phil Buchanan, and Ellie Buteau is that Grantees of foundations have little control over which program officer takes their case. Yet program officers make or break grantees’ experiences with foundations. To trigger social change, foundations must give program officers better training, clearer expectations, and regular performance feedback.
According to the article, “Grantees’ most common complaints about program officers, in order of frequency, are:
• Too little contact with them
• Unclear and inconsistent communications from them
• Negative interactions with them
• Too little understanding of the grantees’ program, organization, goals, and community from them”
This is a fascinating article, and I certainly believe that feedback is most important for both grantors and grantees. But, let’s look at this up close. Does the foundation, including directors and officers, want to act as a support system, or an investor?
Let’s call Foundation Founders, Directors and Grant Officers = Investors
Foundations, their boards and officers are, in fact investors in your organization. A foundation/investor will come together with your organization providing financial support to create mutually beneficial opportunities in which each partner creates value for community.
In response to a request for funding (or other benefit) from an organization, a deal is struck after a period of sufficient due diligence, a plan is hammered out, a system of measurement is designed to show results, and BAM! ... you get a check in the mail to begin.
Sometimes foundations/investors are so passionate about your organization they might get a seat on the board, they might become an active volunteer, they can join the management ranks and have power to influence strategic decisions of the organization, they are allowed budget assessment, regular consultation and project process reporting, monitoring, and measurement. Because they have invested, they have a fiduciary responsibility to manage their investment responsibly. So....how far do they wish to go?
This said, there are various ways to determine the best fit for the relationship between grantee and foundation/investor.
What does a grant officer do?
Grants officers assess applications for grants and funding from nonprofits. They may decide themselves whether to award funding, or they may put the application through to a senior grants officer, program director or a committee for a final decision. Their work can involve but may be exclusive to:
- checking that applications are suitable for their organization to fund
advising people how to apply and helping to them improve their application
assessing applications against a strict set of rules
- giving information and recommendations to the decision-making panel
keeping people informed about the progress of their application
administering grant payments
- supporting a caseload of grant holders and monitoring their progress
keeping accurate records of applications and grant payments
Determining the relationship – unmanaged or managed
Usually the contract between grantee and funder determines the level of involvement from the foundation/investor. Whatever the relationship, continued commitment from the top is vital in successful partnerships.
Managed and Semi- Managed - Sometimes a foundation/investor may require a nonprofit to operate within a tight framework of accountability and bureaucracy that the nonprofit can feel to be extreme. Rigid rules will dominate the period of the grant, and sometimes kill creativity. Many times, rules may not be so inflexible, but there are still strict rules of compliance for the nonprofit to follow.
Unmanaged - At other times a foundation/investor, however interested it might be in issues of social and corporate responsibility, will not devote unlimited time to its involvement once a grant is paid. It seeks results from agreed action. This gives implied trust and independent management to the grantee. Clearly established expectations and goals for mutual benefit will encourage strength between both partners at the outset. A detailed report at strategic times will suffice in most cases.
These foundations/investors will motivate grantees to deliver best efforts and channel those efforts in a coherent direction. They believe in and treat their grantees as partners working together to create successful programs.
The stereotypes of the past still haunt the 3rd sector, not allowing it to propel itself into the future as fast as it should. To be more business-like or less – to need hand holding or not, to work independently or not…..these are all options. Strong leadership is usually a key to success. Other keys are lucidity, openness, communications, expectations, and accountability.
But in the end, it’s all about the final report when both parties determine whether the partnership delivered the desired results. And, if the results were not as expected, was the program valuable to the foundation/investor and the nonprofit. Many times, unexpected results can lead to further investment to learn more.
Ultimately, whatever your relationship, any partnership needs real things to do, common goals and aspirations, otherwise it will drift into irrelevance – no matter how altruistic both parties aspire to be. So don;t get your feelings hurt if your grant officer is busy. The number of grants received by large foundations in Texas today is huge - be grateful for your 5 minutes.