Applicant’s Bill of Rights

The Center for Effective Philanthropy recently released a report titled Working Well With Grantees, and as any program officer might expect, the importance of the relationships that nonprofit applicants and grantees have with program officers is crucial to their perception of the foundation. Not surprisingly, negative experiences like those chronicled in the report can have real consequences for both the foundation and the nonprofit.

In Tuesday’s workshop on the topic, in which the break-out discussions on declining applications, post-grant assistance and funder-grantee relationships were positively dubbed by a number of my co-participants as “group therapy,” I started to think about why certain grantees interviewed by CEP would have cause to make comments about site visits turning to “interrogations,” or to describe communications from program staff as “irresponsible,” “snippy,” and down-right “rude.” Is this the kind of communication funders would expect from nonprofits? Are relationships based on the dynamics of (perceived) power and pompousness getting funders results or advancing the work of the nonprofits they fund? Why does it seem like funders too often forget that the money they grant to nonprofits is – at least in the case of community foundations – not their own, but entrusted to them by others for the betterment of their community?

As many of us pointed out in the session, our program departments often have little capacity; our “caseloads” are too big, and our time to tend to everyone is too short. Since this is very often true, I propose funders craft a general set of guidelines to keep in mind when dealing with nonprofits, whether as potential applicants, declined applicants or grantees. It could be called, The Applicants’ Bill of Rights, and include such rights as the right to:

1.Timely responses from staff when making inquiries about grant funding.
2.Notification of changes in program staff responsible for their grant or application.
3.Transparency in criteria in plain language.
4.Opportunities to talk to program staff about questions and concerns regarding applications, reporting and other grant-related issues.
5.Voice concerns to program staff supervisors when they feel their needs are being overlooked.
6.Give honest feedback on the grant application processes without fear of being penalized for their honesty.
7.Freedom from unrealistic reporting expectations and timelines.
8.Constructive feedback on applications when at all possible.
9.Notification that applications, reports and other communications have been received and a general what they can expect next.
10.Respectful communication from funders, whether in person or otherwise.

I could go on, and in truth, I hate to think of the instances where I have treated applicants with anything less than kindness and appreciation for the work they are trying to do. Wouldn’t it be a nice change of pace for a nonprofit to feel empowered and appreciated instead of apologetic and fearful when approaching funders?

What might you include in an applicants’ bill of rights? I bet if you ask nonprofits for suggestions, they’ll be more than happy to tell you.

Ashley Harper is Director of Grants and Initiatives at the Community Foundation of Greater Memphis.

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