Hi everyone. Last week, I unveiled the FLAIL Index, a tool that allows foundations to see whether or not their grantmaking process will unleash the demon-god Cthulhu upon this world. I’m now calling it the FLAIL Scale (#FLAILscale), since things that rhyme are always more worth our time. I will be updating the Scale this week, based on your feedback, to increase the aggravation points for certain items, such as requiring people to get anything notarized, as well as add some redemption points. Thank you to everyone who tested the FLAIL Scale, especially those who are actually using it to make their grant process better. You are amazing unicorns, and may Cthulhu spare you in the coming Apocalypse.
This week, for balance, we present the other side: Things that we nonprofits do that make funders want to punch us in the jaws—or worse, not fund our programs. I asked the NWB Facebook community, and received nearly a 100 comments from current and past program officers. I synthesized them into the checklist below.
So here, I present, the Grant Response Amateurism, Vexation, and Exasperation (GRAVE) Gauge (that’s, sadly, the closest rhyme to “grave” I can think of). Go through the list below, add up your points (or, use this Excel worksheet), and see how your organization does on any grant proposal. Use this to improve your process. And of course, this is also in beta—and the point values are arbitrary, somewhat based on the frequency the item is brought up—so send feedback and suggestions for GRAVE v2. Also keep in mind there are exceptions and extenuating circumstances.
How annoying are you as a grant applicant?
- You don’t do your homework about the foundation and grant, such as reading the RFP and website, so you ask questions the answers to which are easily found (+5 points).
- You don’t follow the guidelines of the RFP (+5 points). Says one colleague, “When I ask you for 1 copy, un-stapled PLEASE send it un-stapled because I’m trying to save you the time and postage of sending 10 copies for the panel books. And if you send it stapled, it’s like a big middle finger to me and more time I’ll have to spend in front of the copy machine. To This Day—and this program ended almost 10 years ago—I still remember the 3 orgs that always, ALWAYS send their apps stapled. It’s the little things.”
- You don’t answer questions that are asked (+5 points). There is a basic rule of applying for grants: Answer the questions asked on the applications. Some questions have multiple parts, such as “How many people did you serve this year, and how do you expect this to change in the coming year?” That’s basically two questions. Answer them BOTH.
- You ignore your program officer’s advice (+5 points). Your program officers serve as the bridge between us and ethereal, mysterious world of trustees and other decision makers. They know stuff and try to help you out with advice. When you ignore their advice, it’s irritating and greatly decreases your chance to get the grant.
- You don’t communicate with program officers before turning in your application, when asked. (+3 points). Some grants ask you to call or email program officers before submitting a proposal. This is actually not another hoop to jump through. This is to save everyone time, especially yours. A 15-minute conversation to see if your project is a good match can save you hours of writing.
- You name files to make it easier on you, not on your program officer (+3). Imagine if you’re with the ABC foundation, and you receive 200 LOIs, and each file is named “ABC Foundation.” Be thoughtful. When in doubt, name your file something like “[your org] [grant name] submitted on [date].”
- You use 50 words to explain something that can be explained in 20 words (+3). This may be why many grants have strict character limits. Because left to their own devices, some applicants try to dazzle with jargon and fancy prose. Get to the point.
- You didn’t do your homework on your project (+5). If you don’t understand your project backward and forward, funders can sense that you’re BSing stuff.
- Your budget does not include both revenues and expenses (+3). Your budget should include expenses as well as revenues.
- You have a budget that has a bunch of revenues TBD. (+3) Yes, many of us have no idea where our funding is coming from next year. That still does not excuse you for listing “$300,000 to be determined” or “from other sources.”
- Your numbers don’t match up, like the requested amount doesn’t match the budget (+3). If you put in the narrative that you’re asking for $100,000, and your budget only adds up to $98,714 in request, that sends signals that you are not good with managing funds.
- You deny that you have any weaknesses or challenges or mistakes (+3). On applications and on site visits, it’s always suspicious when you say everything is going well. Usually at least a couple of things are not. It makes you seem shady and not a very good partner. Be transparent.
- You are not realistic with staffing plans (+3). Really? You plan to grow your program and expand to 5 new schools, but you’re not planning to bring on new hires?
- You apply for grants you are not a good fit for (+3). This is worse for you than if you don’t apply at all. It shows you have poor planning skills and didn’t bother to do your research.
- You exaggerate your reach and relationships with partner organizations (+3). Organizations that partner with other organizations, or intermediary orgs, do not exaggerate your reach and influence and how awesome and looked-up-to your org is.
- You say what you think funders want to hear, whether it’s true or not (+3). Program officers have a BS detector. Just like with hiding your weaknesses or exaggerating your organization’s influence, they can tell when you’re lying.
- You don’t differentiate between foundations (+3). Yes, I’ve been advocating for funders to just accept applications written to other foundations (thanks to the Whitman Institute and its Trust-Based model). Still, until that happens, ensure you’re tailoring your application to the foundation you’re applying to.
- You have way too much general statistics (+3). Make sure the statistics you quote are relevant and well-thought-out. Says a colleague: “Please don’t fill the narrative of your application with paragraphs upon paragraphs of statistics. Even if it’s relevant, it reads as though you’re stuffing the box. I read 120 grant applications per year—I’ve seen those numbers hundreds of times.”
- You put inaccurate information in the application (+3). I ran into a funder today who said, “I read an application, and they wrote something that I know wasn’t true. Thankfully, I’ve visited their programs so know that what they wrote was probably a mistake.” Make sure your information is correct.
- You wait until the very last minute to submit grants (+5). A grant proposal is due at 5 p.m., and you hit submit at 4:57 p.m. You daredevil you! This is fine ... if it works. What’s aggravating is if you experience technical challenges or other barriers and you call your program officer, freaking out. Give yourself plenty of time to submit your application and handle website and other problems.
- You only communicate when it’s time for a report or new request (+3). Funders love hearing how their funding is helping make the world better, and they appreciate getting a heads-up about challenges or crises you’re facing. So send in those heart-warming stories, and updates on challenges.
- You don’t tell funders in advance of crises, major staff transition, or negative press. (+5) No one likes being surprised. Bad press not just reflects on you, but also on all the foundations that support your org. Plus, program officers want your programs to succeed, and they have lots of connections and resources and may be able to help out if you communicate before stuff goes down.
- You talk bad about other organizations or funders (+3). Sometimes you are asked about organizations doing similar work as your org, and how your org and project are different. Focus on community needs and what your organization is doing well. It impresses no one if you trash-talk another organization. Be gracious. Remember, if you have nothing good to say about someone, just focus on making sure your budget numbers add up.
- You don’t fill out feedback surveys/requests (+3). Some funders are trying to be really good partners by soliciting feedback, often in the form of surveys. It’s disappointing when people don’t fill them out. Spend the two minutes to fill out those surveys, and be truthful.
- You are defensive and argumentative when given feedback (+5). Sometimes, some funders don’t give feedback when your proposal get rejected. If they do give you some feedback, then that’s a great chance to learn. You may not agree with the stuff they say, but arguing back and becoming defensive will not leave them with a good impression of you and your org.
- You don’t follow reporting instructions (+5). Just like with the grant applications, it is irritating when you don’t follow the guidelines for your grant reports.
- Your client impact stories are not well-thought-out (+3). Many foundations ask for stories about the impact your organization has had. Spend time on these stories. “We had a kid, named John, who struggled in school. Now he’s fine.” That does not inspire anyone. Put some thought into it, especially since program officers often take these stories to the rest of the team or the board to advocate for continuing to fund your organization.
- You believe and act like you are actually entitled to funds (+5). Foundations are not ATMs. You don’t automatically deserve any funds. It is a partnership, and it must make sense for everyone.
- You forget that most foundations are also nonprofits (+3). Let’s all be reminded that most foundations are 501(c)(3)s, and that many program officers face similar challenges. So talking to program officers as if they have no understanding of the stuff you’re facing, or that they don’t have challenges of their own, is irritating.
- You don’t accept denials gracefully (+5). Says a program officer, “We actually had to institute a policy to never release denials over the phone, after an unsuccessful applicant threatened to come to our office and beat me up!” (To my credit, I did apologize later).
- You don’t use all the funds (+5). If you don’t use all the funds you are granted, it often causes all sorts of challenges, such as program officers having to justify why your org should get a renewal grant if you can’t use what’s given to you. However, our work is often unpredictable and there are lots of circumstances where you can’t use all these funds at the predicted time; be communicative with your program officer to work through this.
- You CC program officers’ bosses and coworkers on complaints (+5). If you have a complaint, resolve it directly with the program officer. Going over their head or doing things like CC’ing their bosses or colleagues is a losing strategy.
- You don’t acknowledge foundations when receiving good press (+3). Especially for important projects where a foundation’s support is particularly critical, it’s irritating to not get acknowledgment in the role the funder played.
- You don’t list your full contact in your signature (+3). List your contact info in your signature! Otherwise, if a program officer has a question, or if they’re meeting you for lunch or something and wants to confirm, they would have to try to search through your website to find your info. It’s far easier to just refer to the last email you sent, if your signature includes your contact info. (This goes to everyone; funders, you need to do the same).
- Your application smells (+3). I was just being facetious when I asked “Funders, what annoys you, besides applicants who spray cologne on their proposals?” But apparently, this sometimes happens. Don’t spray cologne or perfume. Though some funders are OK if you light incense or sage over your proposal.
- You send glowing letters to the editors or board of trustees about the outcomes you are achieving with help from the funder (Remove 10 points).
How did you do?
You scored 0 to 10 points: You are a magical grantseeking unicorn. Your charisma is only matched by your intelligence and stunning good looks.
You scored 11 points to 25 points: You are a pony, somewhat irritating to funders. Work hard, and you too can become a magical unicorn.
You scored 26 to 50 points: You are annoying, bordering on aggravating, and at risk of not being funded by most funders
You scored 51 to 75 points: You got a lot of stuff to work on. At this rate, it’s hard to see anyone funding you.
You scored 76 to 131 points: No one is going to fund you. Your organization will whither, your land fallow, your livestock barren. Your favorite shows will be canceled.
You scored -10 points: You’re a liar.
vVu Le's column, Point of Vu, appears montly in the GuideStar blog. The preceding is a cross-post of a January 17, 2016, article from his blog, Nonprofit with Balls. Vu Le is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the executive director of Rainier Valley Corps, a nonprofit in Seattle with the mission of developing and supporting leaders of color to strengthen the capacity of communities-of-color-led nonprofits and foster collaboration between diverse communities to effect systemic change.