Be Nice. Fund Results. Minimize Hassle. Help Out.

The word from the trenches on how funders can make life easier for everyone.


This article was originally published by Stanford Social Innovation Review on April 4th 2013 with the headline: Be Nice. Fund Results. Minimize Hassle. Help Out.

A few weeks ago we had a meeting of our poverty-solutions funding group, Big Bang Philanthropy. As a group, we're committed to the idea of high-impact, low-hassle funding. The high-impact part requires high-quality due diligence; the low-hassle part means doing it efficiently and respectfully.

To inform our meeting, I asked a bunch of people who do the real work on the ground what it means to fund well. I ended up with thoughtful responses from a range of high-performance organizations. Here is what they had to say.

Be nice.

This isn't as simple as it sounds. There is a profound asymmetry of power in social sector funding, and it manifests in myriad ways. Out-and-out discourtesy and disrespect are not common, but they are not as rare as they should be. What is common is the simple thoughtlessness of the unaccountable: the unreasonable deadlines, the artificial urgency, the unexplained delays -- all the stuff that we can get away with and they can't. All they want is for us to treat them like we'd want to be treated -- to respond with the same alacrity we expect from them, return emails and calls, be on time, and generally not jerk them around.

Be clear on your process.

They need to know up front how you make decisions: exactly what you need from them, what the process looks like, and how long it will take. Communicate it clearly, and stick with it. They know you have to do your job, and they're not unsympathetic, but they need you to get it done. They'd rather get a clear and reasoned "no" than a long, mystifying, and unproductive process that comes at the expense of other opportunities.

Use what they've already got.

Writing one-off material diverts staff from more productive work and is a huge time suck. Often the thing you want to know is in the material they already sent you, or you can easily find it in other materials they've produced (such as quarterly reports). They need us to understand how hard it is to continually produce funder-specific material: Everyone realizes that good due diligence sometimes requires very specific material, but a lot of what foundations ask for can feel like job security. Also, having to write proposals for small-to-medium grants is a real drain on organization resources -- and please, please keep your proposal format is simple as possible.

Fund results.

These guys want funding based on impact. As one put it, they don't get hassled enough about results, and they get hassled way too much about indirect costs and overheads. Without the context of results, the whole discussion of overhead is meaningless. They want to be judged on the basis of overall bang for the buck and given unrestricted funding to get the work done in the way they see fit. And unsurprisingly, if they're hitting the ball out of the park, they'd like multi-year funding commitments so that they can actually plan for the future.

Dig deep.

Read the stuff they send you; ask the hard questions. They don't mind being grilled; what's painful is when funders jump to rapid and fixed conclusions, settle for superficial impressions, or prematurely abandon important lines of questioning. While it's always hard to hear "no," it's a lot worse when it feels like the funder didn't really understand what you do.

Don't promise what you can't deliver.

When decision-makers and their field representatives are not well aligned, the most well-intentioned funder can lead organizational leaders down an extended and unproductive garden path. It's great to be able to show genuine enthusiasm in the field, and it feels really good to offer the prospect that high-quality work will be funded, but it's all too easy to give cash-strapped organizations a false sense of the odds. Be realistic with yourself and with them about what lies between your current enthusiasm and eventual cash in their bank account.

Fund their idea, not yours.

Understand their work, and fund it if you like it. Don't try to persuade them to do something else -- or worse, offer them money to do it your way.

Give feedback.

The only way they'll get better at raising money is if we give honest feedback, and besides, it sucks to get turned down and not know why. We're their only window into the mysterious world of funding, and whether or not a given process leads to funding, they'd like to hear about how they could do it better -- even if the truth is a little painful.

Connect them to other funders.

We are their best connection to other funders -- by far. If we believe in those we fund, we ought to introduce them to other good prospects. It's a hugely valuable service to both doer and donor.

While I've tried to keep respect for the doers front and center in all that our Mulago Foundation does, this little project helped me see specific ways that I could be doing a better job. This stuff is reasonable and there's really no excuse not to do it. The truth is that impact is a lot harder to come by than money, and we whose job is to fund impact should be profoundly grateful to those who can create it. We're every bit as dependent on them as they are on us: Our money means nothing unless someone turns it into real impact. We would do well not to forget it.