Reflections from the Middle Space between Grantmaking and Grantseeking

I had no idea what institutional philanthropy was when I transitioned from working for nonprofits to landing a job at a grantmaker. Once I arrived, I was often asked by grantseeking colleagues what it was like on the “other side.” I understood this question came in response to the shrouds of mystery that obscures many foundation processes and a desire to know the secret code of securing a coveted grant. After eventually transitioning back to a fundraising position, my former foundation colleagues have asked the same question: What’s it like on the “other side”? I know it is hard to imagine trying to find money if you are used to giving it away.
Having spent time on both “sides” and organizing in the middle spaces, my conclusion is that grantseekers and grantmakers are not so different. I believe we would all be better off imagining each other to be actual people – with motivations, fears, joys and stories – who want to improve our communities by working in different professional functions.
Here’s what I’ve learned about grantmakers…
There are certainly anxieties that arise when you are in the role of grantmaker, donor or someone who works as a gatekeeper for either one. You are often saying no 99 percent of the time and can start to get the feeling that everyone you meet is angling for cash when they hear about where you work. (Oftentimes, this feeling turns out to be accurate.) We build firewalls to temper the overwhelming number of people who need grants with tiny gates to manage the transactions. We put a great deal of energy and intention into the guidelines and program strategies we employ. As a result, we often imagine grantmakers on one side and grantseekers on the other. The power differential in the equation makes honest partnership inherently impossible.
My advice for grantmakers is don’t waste grantseekers’ time with an artificial inquiry processes if you never take on new grantees through those means.
If you believe in the vision and promise of a nonprofit, put enough trust in your relationship to give long-term, general support dollars. Communities don’t improve because of short-term projects.
If you doubt the strategy or logic of a potential or current grantee, be honest with them. Sometimes, funders are the only outside source of accountability for ambitious or “drifting” nonprofit leaders.
Here’s what I’ve learned about nonprofits…
There are frustrations, and often high stakes, when you are seeking funding. It is hard to get in the door and even harder to get a straight answer about why you are not a fit. There is no magic number or mix of inquiries and applications, nor is there the perfect language, to get through the door. Even when you get in, it can also be painful to squeeze communities into unduplicated clients and to divide big picture issues into neat projects.
Foundations are subject to funding cut-offs or restrictions, changing priorities, spend-down and closure. The incessant grind of grantseeking encourages competition over what nonprofits are convinced are scarce resources.
Given these challenges, I suggest seriously exploring other sources of revenue in addition to foundation grants (one resource I recommend is the Grassroots Institute for Fundraising Training).
When approaching foundations, I encourage you to use the same care and intention you would any substantial organizational partnership. Learn about the motivations, framing and strategy of each grantmaker. Simply getting phone or face time, or making a compelling argument will not necessarily produce results.
Grantees and foundations both bring different resources and experiences to the table, and a funding relationship works when mutual ambitions match. If it just feels like there are no foundations or alternative sources of income, there are larger structural questions you need to address. Not every organization needs to exist permanently to make a meaningful contribution to the world.
A culture of anxiety and scarcity is not the road to the common good, let alone social change. If we look at grantmaking as less of a transaction and more of an alliance, we might have a better shot at getting where we all aspire to be.
Braeden Lentz is the development manager for small organizing, legal advocacy and policy projects at the Urban Justice Center in New York. He serves on the board of Resource Generation and as the treasurer of New Yorkers for Social Justice PAC. Previously, Braeden worked as a program associate at theUnitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock.