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If program officers, foundation presidents, and other grantmaking representatives would commit to one awkward conversation with fundraisers, they could save everyone a great deal of time and energy.

The grantmaking community is notoriously hard to get in touch with. In fact, when you find the rare foundation representative who is responsive, they stand out as the exception that proves the rule. This is too bad, because it ends up wasting everyone’s time.

If individuals in the grantmaking community would commit to making themselves accessible—and learn how to have one initial awkward conversation—they could save everyone a good deal of time and wasted energy.

Where we converge

Let’s start with what fundraisers and grantmakers have in common. All nonprofits and philanthropies share a commitment to advancing a mission in pursuit of a vision. Not everyone, obviously, shares the same or even a similar mission or vision—but we share that we have missions and visions.

This is why we don’t want to waste each other’s time: to waste a program officer’s time with pointless inquiries is to hinder their ability to advance a mission. On the other side of the equation, to stonewall a fundraiser sends them into a repetitive cycle of sustained outreach as they try consistently and responsibly to make contact with a program officer.

Where we diverge

What we don’t share in every case is the same mission. Recognizing and being honest about that is the first step to not wasting each other’s time.

The Heritage Foundation and Open Society Foundations don’t share a mission, and the former isn’t likely to seek out the latter. But some nonprofits and philanthropies may appear to be closely aligned and yet still not ultimately compatible.

If, as a fundraiser, you know that a prospect on your radar is obviously not a good fit, then don’t waste their time or yours by pursuing them. You should neither bend your mission to their interests, nor misrepresent your organization and its goals to them. Let them go and devote your time to finding the donor that does have an affinity for your mission.

As a grantmaker, though, know that the nuances of your mission and vision are frequently unknown to fundraisers. Make yourself available so that they can learn that from you—and so that you can learn from them whether, in fact, you are as divergent as you may think. Perhaps you’ve misunderstood their mission, or perhaps they have a new program that you could support—neither of you will know unless you have a chance to discuss it.

An awkward conversation

This is where the awkward conversation comes in. A foundation president—one whom I’ve come to know, but only after an initial awkward conversation—told me this: all foundation representatives should commit to an initial awkward conversation.

This is an opportunity to learn from each other: what precisely are your differences and similarities and, crucially, what are the foundation’s goals, priorities, and guidelines. Foundation folks need to be willing to take this phone call or meeting and to be blunt when necessary. You shouldn’t be unnecessarily discouraging—but do clarify what you can do and what you cannot do. This may well be an awkward conversation as you deflate the expectations of a fundraiser or steer an obstinate hopeful in the right direction: “We cannot do that. We can do that.” Repeat and repeat.

Once you’ve had this conversation—assuming both parties understood what transpired (an instruction into the guidelines, goals, and mission of the grantmaker)—your future interactions should be less awkward and more efficient. If there isn’t affinity, then the fundraiser can direct his attention elsewhere and the grantmaker can stop deleting ten voicemails a week. If there is affinity, then the fundraiser can focus his ask carefully, easing even the job of the grantmaker who should now receive a clearer (and perhaps shorter!) proposal.

Grantmakers: invest in your mission

It must be noted that grantmakers aren’t typically stonewalling fundraisers out of ill will, but out of sheer busyness. The massive John Templeton Foundation, for instance, recently reported receiving 2,058 “online funding inquiries” (i.e., LOIs) in just one cycle. They are to be commended for their open application, but one can see why it would be so difficult to get in touch with their staff.

When program officers are too overwhelmed to respond to inquiries, it may be time to staff up. No one wants to see foundations with a bloated staff. Already they guard their endowment with a painstakingly precise distribution of 5% and ne’er a penny more. To the extent that that 5% is eaten up by staff persons and office space, we all should worry about the efficient and effective pursuit of the foundation’s mission.

However, too many foundations are far from bloated and much closer to understaffed. In one sense, it may be no skin off your back, as a foundation president, if fundraisers cannot reach your overwhelmed staff. But if you care about advancing your mission, you can only do so with operating nonprofits who share your mission—and if they can’t get in touch with you, then they can’t advance their mission in partnership with you.

There is another option, of course. Earlier I suggested that fundraisers shouldn’t waste the time of grantmakers by reaching out to foundations where there is obviously no affinity. I also noted that fundraisers often don’t know well the details of a foundation’s mission and goals—and so the only way to find out is to schedule a call.

One solution to this issue is to invest in strategic planning in order to identify your goals and long-term priorities, articulate them, and then share and disseminate them. Whereas hiring another program officer to respond to inquiries may be a never-ending process (once the new P.O. is at capacity, you’re hiring another one), articulating your goals clearly can steer away fundraisers before they waste everyone’s time by reaching out.

But even still, the website cannot reveal everything, and ultimately, it comes down to an awkward conversation.

2 thoughts on “One awkward conversation”

  1. Patrick Rooney says:

    Great topic and article, Austin. I can’t tell you how much time many “awkward conversations” could have saved me (and so many others) over time!

  2. Enrique B. says:

    I agree with all this. Foundations pretend they are too busy to return all phone calls and emails. That is a lame excuse for lack of professionalism. I used to work for a foundation in Boston known then as the “foundation that returns phone calls.” That’s how rare it was back then.

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