10 condescending funding practices funders need to stop doing

Written by Vu Le

Hi everyone, before we get started, I have exciting news: It took over a year and tons of dark chocolate, but I’ve compiled a bunch of Nonprofit AF ramblings into a book “Unicorns on Fire: A Collection of Nonprofit AF Blog Posts Finally Edited for Spelling and Grammar, Volume 1” which you can order on Barnes and NoblesAll revenues generated from sales from now until the end of June will be donated toward relief efforts for the devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

This book makes a great present for birthdays, wedding anniversaries, as an ominous warning sign for funders or board members you don’t like, or as bathroom reading material for your household. Special thanks to editor Norea Hoeft for putting up with my shenanigans, Stacy Nguyen for designing the cover, Kishshana Palmer for penning the foreword, and all of you for inspiring me to write over the past 11 years.

Now, onto today’s topic. In this line of work, I have met lots of amazing funders. Shoutout to all the brilliant philanthropy professionals who are working hard and often without much fanfare to change the ridiculous systems that make fund seeking so painful and ineffective.

On the other hand, many foundations have a condescending belief that they know what’s best for nonprofits, and that they are like a mentor to these poor misguided organizations. A sort of “benevolent paternalism.” It leads to some terrible funding practices that we need to do away with. This is not a comprehensive list:

1.Requiring funds to be matched by other sources: “We’ll give you money, but you must match it by raising money from other sources.” This practice has been so ingrained that we don’t stop to question it; some of us even start to think it’s a good thing, like funders are in with us on a used-car sales tactic: “We have a funder willing to fund this project, but only if we match it. Can you help us get this matching grant?” sounds like “My manager says we can’t go any lower on this 1993 Honda Accord, but I can probably convince her to take off another $500 if you’re willing to sign today.” Gross. Let’s stop playing games and just provide the funds needed for critical work to get done. Stop requiring matching funds.

2.Having a challenging application process to teach nonprofits: One time I encountered a grant for $5,000 that required a six-page narrative, bespoke budget, logic model, workplan, and six or so other attachments. When I asked why this grant was so complicated, the program officer told me it’s because the grant review committee wanted to help nonprofits develop grantwriting skills, so they made their process complex and time-consuming on purpose. This is a bizarre and self-fulfilling loop: Let’s create a burdensome process to teach nonprofits skills to deal with burdensome processes. No one needs you to teach them anything, and it’s not your job (which is to provide funding). If you want to be helpful, just accept grant proposals that have already been written.

3.Requiring board approval and board signatures: Some foundations require a board officer’s signature on applications. On one occasion I had to drive an hour in Seattle traffic to get my board president’s signature because he didn’t have the tech skills to do an electronic signature. When I asked the program officer why this was necessary, the response was that the foundation just wanted board members to be in the loop before they provided funding (of 10K). We are grown-ass adults here. Nonprofit staff don’t need approval from their board as if they were kids needing their parents’ permission to go on school field trips. And here’s a secret: Because of how ineffective or destructive many boards are, sometimes boards are kept out of the loop intentionally; that’s how a lot of good work gets done!

Read the full article here.

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About the author

Vu Le

Vu Le (“voo lay”) is a writer, speaker, vegan, Pisces, and the former Executive Director of RVC, a nonprofit in Seattle that promotes social justice by developing leaders of color, strengthening organizations led by communities of color, and fostering collaboration between diverse communities.

Vu’s passion to make the world better, combined with a low score on the Law School Admission Test, drove him into the field of nonprofit work, where he learned that we should take the work seriously, but not ourselves. There’s tons of humor in the nonprofit world, and someone needs to document it. He is going to do that, with the hope that one day, a TV producer will see how cool and interesting our field is and make a show about nonprofit work, featuring attractive actors attending strategic planning meetings and filing 990 tax forms.

Known for his no-BS approach, irreverent sense of humor, and love of unicorns, Vu has been featured in dozens, if not hundreds, of his own blog posts at NonprofitAF.com.