Hi everyone. It is October, which means my favorite holiday is coming up: Halloween, a time when children can dress up in costume and go door-to-door for free food, while adults dress up as sexy versions of healthcare workers and politicians.
And of course, it’s also a time to give ourselves a good scare. In our sector, there’s plenty of terrifying things: Restricted funding, 360 evaluations, lack of retirement savings, and creepy colleagues who tip-toe behind you in darkened hallways and whisper, “Would you consider joining the gala planning committee?” I’ll tell you a story about one of the scariest things that happen though. Make sure all the lights are on and you’re not by yourself:
“There once was a foundation. Like other foundations, it provided funding each year and supported many vital causes.
One cold and chilly Autumn day, the nonprofits it funded received a mass email: ‘To be more thoughtful and effective in our approach of working with our grantees to solve entrenched problems like poverty and hunger, the Foundation has decided to take the next 12 months off to determine our priorities and strategies. During this time, no funding will be allocated. Thank you for your patience.’
They say if you listen carefully, even to this day, you can still hear the sighs of hundreds of nonprofit leaders, and the mournful exasperation of the community members who faced lost and reduced services.”
I thought this was a practice that ended years ago, but last week I was at a conference and met a colleague who told me of a local funder who took or is taking a year off to create their strategic plan. Some funders I’ve known of in the past have taken 18 months or two years off for this.
A lot of strategic planning in general is a flawed, useless, or even destructive process that often entrenches us in incrementalism. As Hildy Gottlieb says, “We wanted to get to Paris. Instead, we’ve done a six-month study of our driveway, and made plans to get to the supermarket.” Taking months or years off to do that is silly.
So, funders, we need to have a talk. Because of power dynamics, your grantees can’t be completely honest with you to your face, but this practice of taking significant time off to determine your strategies and priorities is not only extremely aggravating, it’s also steeped in privilege and is harmful to not only the nonprofits that rely on you for funding, but to the people who rely on the nonprofits.*
Let’s talk about aggravation: Funding in our sector is already unpredictable, never sufficient, and highly restricted. The ridiculous hoops many funders force nonprofit leaders to jump through on a daily basis, with the snowflake grant applications and bespoke budgets and reports, cause endless stress on nonprofit leaders, leaving our faces gaunt and haunted, to the point that the majority of us don’t need costumes to look like ghosts and zombies this Halloween. When a funder removes themselves from the chess board, we then have to reassess our own strategies, come up with new ones, and scramble to fill in holes in the budget. All of this takes time and energy away from what nonprofits should be spending most of their time doing: Providing critical services.
Let’s talk about privilege. Most foundations have the privilege of not worrying about funding, whereas nonprofits don’t have that luxury. Most foundations already have money, so they don’t have to worry that if they shut down for a year, their entire operation will collapse. Foundation staff, who on the whole are compensated more than their colleagues at nonprofits, don’t have to worry about their livelihoods when the foundations take a long break to brainstorm and plan. All of this makes this practice of shutting down for a year or two an extremely privileged and out-of-touch one. It’s like that Edgar Allan Poe story where a bunch of nobles wall themselves off in a castle and throw a masquerade ball while the Plague rages outside. Except these nobles have white papers and La Croix.