For all the third-party advice, internal strategizing and basically the guesswork that goes into figuring out how nonprofits can best navigate the philanthropic engagement process, the holy grail continues to be direct donor input. When I decided to write my book The Conversation: Candid Perspectives and Advice on Fundraising Shared by Donors and Nonprofits, I reached out to donors near and far with the recognition that not all nonprofits, especially at the ground level, have access to the preferences, thought processes, and internal decision-making of the donor space. For their part, donors were eager to contribute, with nearly one thousand eventually taking part. The reason was clear to me: a desire to better inform nonprofits so they could “get it right.”
But as I began to incorporate the voices of the nonprofit sector, I saw that presenting donors as the omniscient mentors was uncomfortable fit with reality. When thinking of the roadblocks that nonprofits typically face, we tend to see funders as part of the solution, not the problem. That’s understandable to a degree. Although it’s not the only avenue, donor dollars are essential to keeping nonprofits functional. Whether or not I always agreed with their advice, donors from every inhabitable continent contributed what they thought would improve the nonprofit space, from engagement to implementation. That being said, I collected stories from over one thousand nonprofit contributors to The Conversation who described how donors could also be part of the problem. Despite the considerable list of examples, I still wondered how much of the problem were donors?
I got the answer with the release of the Roadblock Analysis Report and infographic by Open Road Alliance. This organization that makes one-time grants and loans to nonprofits and social entrepreneurs that encounter unforeseen obstacles during project completion, conducted an analysis in 2017 of over 100 applications from the previous five years to examine the variables that led to the roadblocks these applicants faced. 46% of all roadblocks faced by applicants were attributed to donors. To put that into perspective, the next highest level of accountability fell to acts of God and economics…at 27%.
Around the time the Roadblock Analysis report was released, I planned to speak at an upcoming donor convening. I wanted to use this as an opportunity to discuss these findings, but not in a way that only felt academic. I asked nonprofit leaders if I could use previously shared experiences for this session. Promising anonymity, I turned their experiences into scenarios for a role play for donors. Participants were then given two options: speak directly to the donor or fix the situation to the best of their abilities as the nonprofits originally tried. The results were fascinating.
Some participating donors found the scenarios too incredible to be true. At one point, a solution given for each scenario actually matched what the nonprofit leaders had actually tried. This was significant because I had intentionally chosen experiences that failed to be properly resolved. I was looking for the perfect response I could take back to those organizations and say, “this is how you should have handled that situation,” but the consensus “best approaches” proffered by these donors ultimately mirrored those failed approaches. There were several spirited debates throughout, including the unveiling of the infographic. Many were in shock at the significant role of funders as roadblocks, while others questioned the validity of the results. One person took issue with the data, hypothesizing that delayed grant disbursements could be traced to delayed reports from nonprofits.
Even if this were the case (though deeper review of the Roadblock Analysis proves otherwise), factoring out delayed disbursements would still leave a majority of the blame for all remaining obstacles at the feet of donors. So what can be done? Ask a thousand people, get a thousand answers. Believe me, I know. Still, there are steps donors can take.
Transparency. This isn’t a call for foundations to reveal their inner workings, as they don’t all have that luxury. It has more to do with being honest about the types of risk they are comfortable with, but also honest about the state of their institutions. Two words nonprofits hate hearing almost as much as “go away” are strategic review. But the worst time to hear this is not during the engagement phase, but rather halfway into the first grant cycle. Depending on how substantial the donor, a nonprofit can go from strengthening an agreed upon mission to fit the undetermined focus of its biggest supporter. If not, they risk being underfunded or unfunded.
Contingency plan your grants. There’s a lot of talk around risk as it pertains to mission goals and the path to completion, but things go wrong that have nothing to do with the efficacy of the mission. Transport vehicles break down. Weather patterns change. Life happens. It might be better to set aside money for each grantee partner so these minor incidents don’t metastasize into something untreatable. One less grant in your portfolio in order to insure and ensure the wellbeing of all your other grants and grantees could prove to be more than a fair trade-off.
Base foundational changes and policies in the real — not ideal — world. If you attach benchmark expectations to grant renewals, how do you determine feasibility without creating undo sacrifice to the organization?
In the end, I still believe donors represent one of the strongest voices in shaping how nonprofits engage and maintain the livelihoods of their organizations. But those voices are strongest when informed by the people in the trenches. Those voices are best when they are informed with equal parts acumen and empathy. Otherwise, our advice and our monies may reach the ground without ever creating the intended groundswell needed for change.
EJ Jacobs is the founder and host of Virtual Philanthropy, a resource center and podcast series that details the entire process of philanthropic engagement directly from members of philanthropy. Jacobs has spent a decade in philanthropy, working to help the sector realize the power of all its resources beyond the financial. Jacobs was the Program Director of the Nduna Foundation, where he oversaw the foundation’s philanthropic giving and partnerships, with a focus on Human Rights in conflict and post-conflict regions, predominantly in Africa. Jacobs is also the author of the critically acclaimed The Conversation: Candid Perspectives and Advice on Fundraising Shared By Donors and Nonprofits.