True Stories of Grantseeking: A First-Person Nonprofit Story

There are three levels of exchange in the grantor-grantee relationship. Explore one of the least discussed: The one-to-one interaction.

True Stories of Grantseeking: A First-Person Nonprofit Story
8 mins read

One person’s experience with one-to-one fund-seeking interactions.

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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!”
  5. 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.
  6. 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!”
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.

About the Author

Jan is a former editor of Blue Avocado, former executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, and has sat in on dozens of budget discussions as a board member of several nonprofits. With Jeanne Bell and Steve Zimmerman, she co-authored Nonprofit Sustainability: Making Strategic Decisions for Financial Viability, which looks at nonprofit business models.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

15 thoughts on “True Stories of Grantseeking: A First-Person Nonprofit Story

  1. This article touches on a taboo subject in fundraising – the arrogance of foundation giving officers to grant seekers and grantees. We have all experienced it in many different forms, I’m sure! Thanks SO much for telling these stories! It’s just a fact of life in fundraising.

    The subject is taboo because we dare not complain. What foundation will give to someone who complains about the high-handed way they are being treated? Smart fundraisers know they need to keep their mouth shut. We really don’t have much of a choice.

    What galls me is that it it not even their money! Yet their attitude is one of sitting high up on the hill looking down at the peons in the trenches who have our hands outstretched for a bit of help. I have been there, too many times myself.

  2. I have been CEO of a non-profit in the Cincinnati community for nearly 6 years and worked at a similar non-profit in Cleveland for 18 years prior. I am happy to say that in all those years I never came across any of these scenarios. So glad my work with funders has been minus all the drama and terrible abuses! I have nothing but good things to say about those I’ve worked with!

  3. A couple hundred more of these, and you’ll have a great book on your hands! Thanks for the good read.

  4. As the program director at a Family Foundation, I try really hard not to be the villain in any of these scenarios, but foundation workers are only human and sometimes we make mistakes, sometimes we’re rude and sometimes we are disrespectful. Money is funny. I try to keep in the forefront of my mind that this is not my money. I apologize for all the inappropriate encounters with foundation workers. I”ll try to do better.

    BTW, in defense of the foundation worker that gave you the thumbs up on a proposal, foundation workers can often get the go ahead from the powers that be at a foundation to be later told its a no.

  5. I have worked on both sides of the desk. My worst experiences with foundations (e.g., a program officer who asked her questions in a site visit , in my VERY small office, while pumping her breasts) helped keep me in check, but giving away money with constant courtesy and humility is just plain hard to do — it’s easy to think you/I know more. I’m sure I’ve been oblivious at times, and usually then the problem is that the transaction makes it hard for someone to say back, " Um, you’re acting like a jerk."

    1. 🙂

      1. Made a personal contribution at the suggested level out of my own money.

      5. Paid with my organization’s money and a smile. 

      7.  Bought the second least expensive item in the catalog which was a bottle of moisturizer. My own money. Gave it to my older daughter.

      2. My Dad often gave us this good tip: whenever someone else has done something stupid, take the blame for it. "Oh, I’m so sorry I didn’t explain that I’m the executive director."

      The question to me is simply, "what action serves my organization and who we serve?" Another way to put this, to quote Eva Paterson about how high to jump when asked to jump by foundations, "I’m not dumb!"

      Thanks for asking! Jan

      1. Hi Jan,
        I enjoyed your article. As a young woman just starting out in my current organization I had the dubious pleasure of meeting a man who was quite possibly the worst racist and sexist I have ever met! He was trying to help us get funds to purchase a valuable piece of conservation property. However, we had to sit through his lectures on how immigration was ruining the country because there were too many non-whites being allowed in. (He didn’t say it that nicely.)
        When he asked me to take dictation for him, I told him that I was a planner and it was not part of my job. The astounded look on his face was totally worth it!
        In the end, he did manage to get us some money. The next time he was scheduled for a visit, I made sure that I was busy that day.

        1. Great story! When I first became CompassPoint’s executive director we shared office with a nonprofit with many volunteers who were mostly older, white men. These volunteers would sometimes see me walking through the office and stop me to ask me to xerox things for them . . . they were following the cultural norms they knew . . . you see a youngish Asian woman: she’s a secretary there to help them!

  6. These are sad tales that make program officers like myself cringe…but of course foundation staff have no monopoly on crass, rude, or disrespectful behaviour. As evidence, we are occasionally (and definitely accidentally) cc’d on a response to a funding rejection that would make your hair curl. All that being said, the obvious inequality in the relationship creates challenges on both sides – it’s important to keep in mind the immensity of our EXTERNAL obstacles.

  7. I work at a community foundation and I enjoyed the True Stories of Grantseeking. It made me cringe and reminded me of the sometimes uncomfortable relationship between grantee and grantor.

  8. I’m pleased that two grantmaking associations have asked to reprint this article! Very glad it’s being put to one of its intended uses . . . as a cautionary tale about real life.

  9. I read the stories with delight and relief that I have not experienced those types of encounters with funders. Thank you Jan for sharing your responses with us!
    Your column inspired me to spend some time pondering whether these individuals were merely unprofessional or indeed unethical. I proceeded to research the "code of ethics" for funders. While my search was no means exhaustive or extensive, the search did turn up a "statement of ethical principles" included as a component of the Council on Foundation membership form. COF also had a publication called Principles for Accountability in International Philanthropy. As best I could tell, neither publication had a section addressing self-dealing as noted in Jan’s anecdotes. Is anyone aware of a universal code of ethics for funders? I am bound by the Association of Fundraising Professionals code of ethics, which is universal.
    How would a program officer or trustee greet me if – while submitting my proposal or report – I asked that person to buy Girl Scout cookies, buy tickets to an upcoming youth choir concert, or sponsor my child in the March of Dimes Walk for Babies?
    I think Jan’s anecdotes aptly demonstrated that staying focused on your organization’s mission and being gracious will carry you through awkward moments.

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