There are true stories that wealthy people tell about housekeepers that have stolen from them, lied to them, and so on. And there are stories that housekeepers tell about employers who have cheated them, blamed them unfairly, and so on. Both kinds of stories are true but each carries a different sensibility. This article has a few stories from the domestic help, as it were. Unlike urban myths that “happened to a friend of a friend,” every one of these happened directly to me.
There are three levels of exchange in the grantor-grantee relationship. First is the one-to-one interaction between two individuals, and that’s the level this article addresses. More importantly, at another level are grantmaking practices, such as restrictions on proposals or the processes for applications. And the third is the relationship between the funding market as a whole, and the fund-seeking market as a whole. This article looks at the least important of these: the one-to-one interactions. We don’t mean to suggest that this level is less important than the other two levels. In any case, stories like the ones here are of the sort that are constantly swapped over drinks after nonprofit events; this article takes one person’s experience and shares them more broadly:
- The head of corporate grantmaking at a bank phoned me to let me know she had received our application for funding and to tell me the timeline for their response. She went on to tell me about a local chamber music group where she is on the board, and asked me to make a personal contribution to it to help her meet her board fundraising goal. When I asked her what amount she was asking from me, she said, “$250.”
- In a meeting to discuss a proposal, the foundation president asked me to summarize it for him. His first question after my summary: “You don’t seem like the typical Oriental girl . . . you know, quiet and shy. What did you say your position is at CompassPoint?” (I was the ED.)
- Strolling back to the foundation from lunch, the program officer of a large family foundation began telling me how “stupid” she thought the foundation president was. She was quite vitriolic about how she had been made to make a grant she thought was ill-advised to a friend of the president. As we got to the foundation door, we realized that the president had been walking right behind us and had heard the whole conversation.
- I was on a community foundation-convened committee to advise the foundation on its technology-related grantmaking. We usually met over lunch which consisted of sandwiches, chips and sodas — and Snickers bars for dessert. But at one meeting we arrived to find a linen-draped table set with china and silverware and a beautiful buffet set out, including wine. The VP of Programs came in to say hello and saw the buffet and exclaimed in horror, “Oh no! Somebody made a mistake — this is a donor-quality lunch!”
- The daughter of the founder of a family foundation was also the foundation’s only staff. They had given us two grants of $45,000 each. She suggested that I and another staffperson take her and her father out for his birthday as a gesture of thanks. We agreed. She picked the (expensive) restaurant and when we showed up it turned out she had also invited six other family members to this dinner we were hosting.
- The program officer of a family foundation invited a proposal from us for a new program at $200,000. He was very excited about the program, and a few weeks later when we ran into each other at a conference he made the “thumbs up” sign at me and said, “It’s a go. I’m so sure of it you should go ahead and hire.” (We decided to wait). After the foundation’s board meeting had occurred, I called three times to see whether the proposal had been approved but never got a call back, and then weeks after that received a form letter saying the proposal had been rejected. The real kicker was two years later when we were giving a presentation on the program (which a different foundation had funded at a lower amount) at a grantmakers conference. The same program officer attended the presentation and got up to comment, “I’m very proud that we were the first foundation to fund this program!”
- A foundation program officer called to tell me they had just awarded a $5,000 grant to us. She then asked for my home address, saying she wanted to send me something “from me to you, not from the foundation to your organization.” A few days later I received a Mary Kay cosmetics order form with a handwritten note from her telling me she sold cosmetics on the side and that I would really like the moisturizer. I bought a bottle.
- In a meeting to discuss a possible grant, a program officer confided in me that she had been a “warrior princess” in a previous life, fighting in ancient Britain against the Romans. She asked me about my previous lives, and when I confessed I did not know about them, she urged me to work with the hypno-therapist who had helped her remember her own past lives.
- Our program officer (female) at a large family foundation had a young assistant (male) who she saw as her protege. She sent the assistant to attend a workshop on logic models. She then brought the executive directors of six of her grantees (including me) to attend a 6-hour session in which her assistant went over what he had learned in the workshop. She came in at the end, asked her assistant to leave, and then, beaming with pride in him, asked us to tell her how it had gone.
- When he met with me at his office, the young program officer had just returned from a site visit to an exceptionally well-regarded African American organization headed by its legendary founder of 30 years tenure. The program officer was still flushed with his triumph as he told me how he had dressed down this leader and his management team explaining the way this leader should be working with his board but didn’t seem to understand.
- As one of two grantee guest speakers, I attended the two-day staff retreat of a foundation held at the luxurious Ritz Carlton Hotel in Laguna Niguel. The first evening of the retreat we nibbled on caviar and champagne on the terrace overlooking the ocean before sitting down to dinner and a speaker whose topic was children living in poverty.
Note: I have many stories of smart and gracious funders, and of encounters that were mutual, positive learning experiences. But warm and fuzzy stories don’t make good copy! I hope these vignettes gave you a wry smile or two.