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March 2021 (1 posts)

Saying “No” Gracefully: What Grantmakers Should Know
March 25, 2021

EllenFlax
Ellen Flax

Ellen Flax served as the director of a public foundation and as a program officer and consultant at several large family foundations and now works as a philanthropy consultant. Follow her on Twitter @ellenflax or get in touch at ellen@ellenflax.com

What do 2-year-olds and foundation professionals have in common? 

They both say “no” frequently. 

Toddlers have no problem saying “no.” They tend to chant the word many times in a row, often while stomping their feet or throwing a mini temper tantrum. 

Grantmakers, too, often say “no.” Indeed, due to limited resources, they are forced to say “no” far more often than they can say “yes.”  But unlike a toddler, many feel uncomfortable sayingno,” and for good reason. 

“The mere act of rejecting a grant application reinforces the power dynamic and power imbalance between a funder and a nonprofit organization.”

We know (or should know!) that the mere act of rejecting a grant application reinforces the power dynamic and power imbalance between a funder and a nonprofit organization.  While many have shifted to calling the organizations that we fund “grantee partners” as a way of making this relationship less transactional, at the end of the day, funders are consistently playing with a better hand of cards than are grant applicants. 

We also know (or should know!) that every grant application—even if it is completed on a common application platform, or “only” needs to be 500 words in length—represents a real investment of time and effort by a nonprofit and its staff.  And truth be told, the online application systems favored by funders for their efficiency (for the funder’s efficient operations, mind you) have actually increased the workload of nonprofits and their grant writers, who now have to spend countless hours figuring out ways to trim 10 characters or 10 words from an otherwise perfectly fine paragraph so it can fit into an arbitrarily sized answer box.

We also know (or should know!) that every “no” might cause one or more of a nonprofit’s staffers to lose a job, lead to the abrupt end of a successful or worthy program (and the attendant impact on program participants), or, in a worst-case scenario, the collapse of an organization. In an ideal world, the one that foundation professionals believe is the hallmark of a good or strong organization, a nonprofit should have a pipeline of other and/or new potential funders available, or seek multiple grants simultaneously, to support a program. Yet, if the nonprofit is the victim of a string of unlucky breaks, including a pandemic, it may nonetheless wind up in the red, despite taking all the right steps to raise funds and be financially responsible. 

So, what, if anything, can funders do to say “no” in a way that respects the time, effort, and dignity of grantseekers?

Let’s start with the timing of rejection notices. Foundations typically send out rejection letters at the end of a complete grant cycle, after their Board or other decision makers have approved a docket. This is often months after an application was submitted, and perhaps even months after there was a decision to not advance a set of proposals to the next round of review, never mind before the Board gives final approval.  If funders opted to provide notices of rejection in real time, as their internal processes winnow down the number of applications subject to final consideration, they would, at the very least, provide nonprofits with more timely information, enabling them to better plan for contingencies and/or refine their development efforts. 

We should also rethink the contents of the rejection letter. The typical communique is anodyne at best, praising the organization for its good work, and noting that due to heavy competition (which is likely true) that it was not selected for a grant. In an ideal world, a rejection notice should be customized to each applicant, spelling out the reasons for the rejection, and contain an offer for direct feedback about their proposal from a foundation professional. For example, the Bush Foundation’s rejection letter provides applicants with a link to sign up for a one-on-one appointment with a program officer to discuss why their proposal was turned down.  

Like Bush, there are some funders that are able to provide customized assessments—they are fortunate to have sufficient staff time, as well as a reasonably-sized applicant pool. For most funders, however, this type of individualized feedback is aspirational, but not practical, due to limited staff, other competing work priorities, and a large volume of proposals. Further, the unspoken but must-be-acknowledged reality is that fund decision-makers, staff and board members alike, don’t always apply consistent criteria when evaluating and approving grant proposals—and no one wants to be put in the position of telling an applicant that their submission was rejected for a subjective reason.  

On the other hand, if there is, indeed, an objective reason for the rejection, such as a poor evaluation plan or the project falls outside the foundation’s area of interest, then we should do our best to communicate that information proactively. 

If such individualized feedback is not possible, then funders should use other vehicles to share what went into their decision-making process.  This could be in the form of a webinar, a podcast, a blog post, infographics, or a white paper. 

“Nonprofit organizations and funders are necessary partners in the grand human effort to improve our society.”

For example, when I served as the director of a foundation and lacked the ability to respond to each applicant individually, I created a short podcast based on the trends we observed from our latest round of grants, as well as some general tips related to creating a better proposal. This was particularly critical after the foundation changed its priorities in one of our areas of giving, and was able to refine its preferences only after reviewing proposals and learning how the field was actually implementing these types of programs. We shared a link to this recording, which was posted on Box, with the organizations we rejected. While saying “no” was still difficult, the podcast enabled us to provide some level of feedback to the applicants, and indicated that we truly acknowledged the time and effort that these organizations dedicated to their grant writing and program planning.

Nonprofit organizations and funders are necessary partners in the grand human effort to improve our society. When they say “no” to a request, funders owe it to their partners to do so in such a way that is respectful, promotes learning, and provides greater transparency in an often-opaque field.

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