There’s a reason why I usually advise nonprofits to spend more time pursuing donors than grants. Grantmakers can be like a death in the family!
Last July, my brother Joel died at the age of 59. He died suddenly, as people with pancreatic cancer often do. To wind up his affairs, I had to deal with a court-appointed administrator, with an investment firm, and with three offices of the U.S. government (his employer).
The administrator was wonderful, both humane and experienced. The investment firm took more care to make sure they were crossing the T’s and dotting the I’s than to make the experience easy for me, but that’s all right: I’d rather they send the right amount of money to the right recipient (our mother, Joel’s heir).
The HR office at Joel’s employer, the US Courts, was both deeply caring and efficient. They made sure I would know what to do and how, and they cautioned me about how long it might take.
The unexpected obstacle was the Federal Employee Retirement System (FERS). After several rounds of mail (sent to my mother and forwarded to me), they finally got to the point where they were ready to release my brother’s money. Only…they required my mother’s signature, by hand.
Not my electronic signature, as her Power of Attorney. Not even my signature in ink. Apparently, as far as this particular branch of the federal government is concerned, a legal Power of Attorney might as well be a roll of toilet paper.
They insisted my 88-year-old mother with the trigger finger take a pen and sign on the dotted line before they would send any of the money my late brother had left for her. Apparently, I could have been defrauding them by sending them a Power of Attorney that’s been valid for years, but if Mom painfully signed their document today, that would prove she’d done it of her own free will.
Grantmakers, don’t do this!
If you run a family foundation or manage a grant program at some larger charity, don’t act like the FERS. You don’t want to be a source of grief!
Literally, there’s a good chance that someone who’s applying for your funds has lost someone close to them recently. Between Covid-19, RSV, police violence, and maternal mortality rates, there have been even more deaths than usual these past few years (and a disproportionate amount of the mourning has taken place in communities of color).
But even if the particular applicant has not put on their mourning suit lately, many nonprofits are dealing with a set of social ills that take their clients’ lives and drain their own vital energy, day by day.
You want to support them. I know that. The last thing you want to do is administer death by a thousand cuts. But…listen to the brave nonprofits who are risking losing your money by telling you that’s exactly what you’re inflicting.
As Charlie Brown would say, “Good grief!” (Only, there’s nothing good about it.)
Grantmakers, please do this instead
- Simplify, simplify, simplify your proposals.
- Accept proposal formats that a variety of other funders accept, so the nonprofit doesn’t have to rework the proposal over and over.
- Get rid of word and character limits. Let people write in natural sentences.
- Make unrestricted grants.
- Make multi-year grants.
- Come up with reporting requirements that nonprofits can meet just by doing their work, not by making a separate database stand on its head.
- Be kind. Remember that other people are carrying burdens you know nothing about.