On a recent trip with my twins to Magic Kingdom at Disney World, I was taken aback by the multiple barriers to actually entering the park, and the disappointing experience leaving the park after a fabulous, fun-filled day. Yes, it was fun while we were there, but the lead up and send off essentially killed the Magic Kingdom's "magic" for me.
It got me thinking: What road blocks do foundations inadvertently create, preventing ideal applicants from applying and great ideas from being funded? What opportunities are lost at the end of a grant period? How can we make sure we're not killing the "magic" that comes from a synergistic and mutually fulfilling foundation-grantee relationship?
Let me explain how the magic gets killed. On our way to Magic Kingdom, we had to deal with seven barriers to entry before we could actually enter the park. We had to:
- Wait at the parking toll booth and pay for parking
- Wait in line for the free shuttle to take us from the parking lot to what we thought was the park (it was actually the Disney "transportation center")
- Figure out that we were not yet at Magic Kingdom, and either stand in line for what appeared to be a 45 minute wait to take the Monorail or notice that there was a much shorter line to take a Ferry
- Take the Ferry to Magic Kingdom
- Wait in line to pick up our tickets at Will Call
- Wait in a separate line to have our bags checked
- Wait in yet another line to have our fingerprints scanned and linked to our Disney Pass
It was a full hour from the time we paid for parking to the time we walked into the park, and it was not a busy day! At no time was Mickey, Minnie, Donald Duck or Cinderella walking around to at least keep the kids entertained or remind us that we were actually in the wonderful world of Disney. Few staff were on hand to explain to overwhelmed parents whose children had to use the potty what was going on, where to go, or what to do. I imagine Disney spends billions of dollars per year on advertising to get families like ours to spend $360 in tickets to be there that day - so why make it so hard to walk in the door?
We had fun, we rode rides, we had our picture taken with princesses. But my most vivid memory was exiting the park at 5:00 pm (long before the park closed). The employees were gone, the ticket windows were closed. All you saw were gray cement structures. No Mickey Mouse waving goodbye, no signs telling to you come back real soon, no reminder of what a wonderful time you just had, or incentive to encourage you to visit other Disney parks. Nothing.
Foundations are well positioned to wrap a meaningful and memorable experience around their grant distributions. Yet, intentionally or unintentionally, foundations repeatedly set up roadblocks that make it difficult for great ideas and great nonprofits to be funded or leave grantees amidst the tumbleweeds once a grant is finished.
Here are just 10 of the dozens of barriers to entry that I have seen:
- No information available about the foundation or its guidelines
- Vague funding guidelines
- Lack of contact information for foundation staff on websites
- Messages clearly stating "we don't accept unsolicited proposals"
- Refusing to discuss project ideas with nonprofits
- Lack of communication with grant seekers once proposals are submitted
- Unanswered emails and unreturned voice mails
- Requiring applicants to obtain matching funds within 3 weeks in order to submit a proposal
- Working with an applicant on a proposal for 6 months and then telling them they aren't going to fund it because their priorities have changed
- Using proposals as a way to surface new ideas, but not funding them
And similar to my Disney experience, the end of the grant period can be quite lackluster and a lost opportunity for learning, creativity, and expansion. Here is what typically happens: Toward the end of grant the foundation's grants management system sends an automated message to the grantee that their final report is due. The grantee fills out the report and mails it in. The program officer is too busy to read it, and it gets filed with the grants management system. The grantee can apply again if they want to (although some foundations require they wait 3 months to a year to reapply). No conversation. No real learning about what worked, what didn't, what challenges or opportunities the nonprofit learned that could be shared with the funder. No brainstorming new ways that the nonprofit and foundation could partner. No sharing with the nonprofit the names of other funders it might pursue. The funder-nonprofit relationship simply ends, and all the energy originally exerted to bring both parties together just dissipates.
As grantmakers, we should honestly count how many barriers we create that prevent grant seekers from applying for funds or sharing good ideas with us. Then, we should ask ourselves what messages these barriers send, which can be eliminated or reduced, and how we can be more welcoming, transparent, responsive, and encouraging. Similarly, we should think of our relationship with the nonprofits we fund as a relationship, with mutual learning and sharing, and value for both organizations beyond the grant itself and beyond the grant period.
In other words, we should look for every opportunity to keep the magic alive.