Let’s Bring Sanity Back to Grantmaking


Sanity Not InsanityToo Hard, Too Soft, or Just Right?
Remember the story of Goldilocks and the three bears? At every turn, the blond-haired trespasser was confronted with choices, and in every case she picked the middle ground. Not that I condone breaking and entering, but there is something to be said for the idea of being neither too hard nor too soft on grantseekers. Either extreme – being too hard or being too “soft” ­- is a bad practice. Here’s why:

Too Hard
There is a longstanding philosophy among some funders that grants should be hard won by only those who can show themselves to be the most deserving. In some ways, they’re right. You don’t want to invest in an organization or organizational leaders who can’t go the extra mile when needed. But is the grant application process really the place to pile on a burden and test their mettle?

I know of grantmakers who make applicants jump through some ridiculous hoops:

  • Accepting only paper applications (rather than online) because they feel it shows more dedication and thought.
  • Pitting applicants in direct and public competition with one another, forcing them to be “attractive” to others when they really just want and need to concentrate on their missions.
  • Making surprise site visits on prospective grantees, akin to surprise boot camp inspections.
  • Requiring 20 pages of grant application data for requests of less than $10,000.

Purposefully making a grant application process difficult when nonprofits are already so strapped for staff time and funding is downright cruel. If you really want to know how tough a nonprofit is, why not just ask around? Or better yet, add a question to your application that reads something like, “Please share an example of how you or your staff has gone the extra mile to leverage funding in the past.”

Too Soft
If being too hard is akin to cruelty, then being too soft on potential grantees is enabling at best, and insulting at worst. Nothing could make this point better than a recent notice I received that the Deluxe Corporation Foundation was running a special “Short + Tweet” campaign to accept proposals via Twitter. That’s right: your entire mission, purpose, and need in only 140 characters.

While I’m sure the foundation wanted to make the process easier on its grantseekers – and maybe even give them a social media boost in the process – this is a bad idea in more ways than I can count. For example:

  • By asking so little from grantseekers, funders set up their staff to be overwhelmed and frustrated. Setting a low bar for the amount of information required (and 140 characters is about as low as that bar can get) is very likely to dramatically increase the number of respondents. Staff could receive thousands of requests, for which they have no data and will need to spend hours more on due diligence. Either that, or just pick the response that’s the most witty or clever and keep your fingers crossed for results.
  • Lack of guidelines or rigor means the grantmaking process becomes more subjective and less transparent. No one will understand why one grantee was chosen over another – including those who are selected. That will breed future confusion and mistrust down the road.
  • When staff are ill informed about a potential grantee, they have little insight as to quality. The Twitter campaign in particular forces staff to make decisions based on humor and cleverness (or the ability of an applicant to hire a good communications consultant), rather than the merits of the program or organization.
  • Making it too easy is downright disrespectful. If you make an application process too easy, you aren’t giving the nonprofit the opportunity to make their case. There are things they have worked hard to achieve; they want to tell you about them and you should want to know. Don’t assume that brevity is always better. A strict word or character limit on an application may force respondents to be brief, but it could also force them to tell only a small part of a bigger, important story.

Just Right
Exactly how long and how rigorous your grant application process should be depends on several factors:

  • What are you trying to accomplish with your grant? How much detail do you need to make decisions relative to that goal? Ask for that, and let the rest go.
  • How much are you giving away? I’m a firm believer that the level of rigor in an application should reflect the value of the potential grant.
  • Who are you hoping to fund? Are your applicants academic types who are used to writing long documents, or are they grassroots organizations with leaders who barely finished high school? What approach makes the most sense for your potential grantees?

The moral of the story? Don’t make it too easy, and don’t make it too hard. If you make it too easy for applicants, you insult their intelligence and don’t give them a true opportunity to demonstrate why they should be funded. If you make it too hard, you’re treating applicants like indentured servants who can’t be trusted and burdening their already busy schedules with offensive and time-consuming busywork. Find that “just right” middle ground, and keep in mind that it may shift from one grantmaking initiative to the next.


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and advisor. To learn more about effective approaches to grantmaking, read her articles and Philanthropy411 blog , and subscribe to her podcast series on iTunes.

Kris will is speaking November 12th on “Tips, Tools and Lessons on Multi-Media Storytelling” at the Southeastern Council on Foundations annual meeting in Asheville, NC.

What our clients have to say:

“Kris expertly managed our $20 million grantmaking initiative to solicit, review, and select grantees to support Accountable Care Organizations (ACOs). Her consulting services are of exceptional quality and I highly recommend her.” – Juan Davila, Executive Vice President
Blue Shield of California

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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