One of the first things a colleague said to me when I started as a program officer at a foundation was that I’d never again receive a sincere compliment. My first thought was, “Really? I’m not brilliant, insightful, funny and wonderful?” My second thought was, “How sad.” Not because I need to receive constant positive feedback, but because this statement indicated an inherent distrust and dishonesty in the relationships between funders and those organizations requesting funds from them.
The perceived power differential between nonprofit organizations and funders does make for strange relationships. Certain steps within most foundation funding processes also create distance in those relationships. Very often the first communication is in written, often paper, form as an application or letter. And, due to the volume of requests received, not every one can be acknowledged with a personal phone call. However, funders need organizations as much as organizations need funders. Neither group can function in a vacuum, so why not work to have a meaningful relationship on both sides?
Utilize your program officer
According to the recent report, Listen, Learn, Lead: Grantmaker Practices that Support Nonprofit Results, by Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, “An open, honest grantmaker-grantee relationship goes hand-in-hand with more appropriate support … and both contribute greatly to nonprofits’ ability to achieve results.” Smart nonprofit executives use all the resources available to them to improve their organizations, and one of those tools can be their program officer.
One thing program officers can offer is a broader perspective on your organization. Most funders view the nonprofit sector from the bigger picture and can often see synergies for collaboration or competition that aren’t always apparent to groups focused on their own work. Funders can also make important introductions to other groups in the sector, i.e. other interested funders or policy makers. Funders have been known to convene similar types of organizations for a casual luncheon that has started wonderful ongoing communications and collaborations.
Honesty is the best policy
The old adage to be honest holds true here; you never know where honesty might get you. For example, one nonprofit organization I know of that was in serious trouble with its finances and board of directors received help when it shared this information with several foundations. The funders got together and helped pay for consulting expertise, as well as convening meetings of other interested parties to help address the organization’s issues. Another example came from a site visit experience. An executive shared some struggles she was having with her board, and after the visit, the program officer sent over a packet of board building materials and reference articles to support her work. Neither of these things would have happened if the communication lines weren’t open and honest.
Generally, funders enter the nonprofit world for the same reason as anyone else: to make a positive difference. Program officers and other foundation staff are inquisitive people; they like to learn. It is OK to have a conversation with a funder that doesn’t involve a request for a grant. Funders are often separated from direct service work, so information about the day-to-day experience of nonprofit practitioners is helpful. However, try not to become predictable. As one program officer at a national foundation said, “You could start off talking about a baseball game or your family, but in the end it winds up in a request for money.” Instead, try communicating with your funder outside of the regular grant cycle with information or evaluation results that you think might inform their overall work. Establish yourself as a resource in your areas of expertise for funders who will learn to call you for in-depth information. A friend of mine said that she equates a good funder relationship to cultivation of a large individual donor. Be willing to meet, share and listen, on both sides of the relationship.
Having said all that, there are also times when it is most appropriate for a foundation to cut a check and get out of the way. When this situation arises, again be honest, and find a way to say it nicely. The expertise to solve critical issues lies in the sector and, at times, the work just needs to happen, unimpeded.
We’re all busy. The importance of this work makes it so. Yet, there is always time for the personal relationships that are part of what make this work so rewarding. I think you’ll be surprised at the resources—outside of a check—that can come from funders.
By Cindy Willard, program officer for the Helen K. and Arthur E. Johnson Foundation (www.johnsonfoundation.org), a Colorado-based family foundation.