A Dose of Honesty: Expectations

“There was an extremely lengthy and convoluted pre-proposal process. The program officer then seemed to need a lot of hand-holding in making the case to the trustees. Once the grant was verbally confirmed, an additional online application process seemed to duplicate the copious information requests already made. Later, after the grant was confirmed and awarded, they decided to change what it was for exactly, leading to further paperwork and back and forth. Condescending…and painful.”

“[The Foundation was] unreasonable in the demands it made for data that we could not collect or just was not available…the Foundation is asking us to collect data up to a year after the project funding has finished. We have no money to pay anyone to do this work.”

This weekend I was surprised to receive a Travelocity airline confirmation forwarded to me from my parents. They don’t fly very often, and booking travel online is a pretty new experience for them. My dad begs my mom to do the searching because he finds the multitude of sites and options frustrating.

My mom is really only concerned with price. So, when I, a frequent traveler, opened their confirmation I just sighed and began to work up some serious anger at Travelocity. Travelocity hadn’t given them any easily visible warning that the “inexpensive” flight they had purchased would require them to execute a 25 minute connection. Nor or was it clear that their second “direct” flight stops for an hour and a half in Minneapolis. Too bad – it’s a sunk cost now. They’ll just muddle through.

Like the grantees who made the comments at the beginning of this post, my parents are suffering from a lack of clear, upfront information about what to expect from a complex system. This is a frequent lament of grantees: At first a funder’s requirements and processes seem simple and straightforward but there turn out to be hidden twists, predictable by the funder but not visible to the grantee. That lack of clarity can frequently lead to an erosion of trust between two organizations that should, optimally, be partners in achieving mutual goals.

Grantees tell us that foundations are often “overwhelmed” and “unresponsive.” But both sides are complicit, as Nancy Lublin points out, mockingly, in her recent Fast Company “letter.” These issues aren’t new, and they’ve been highlighted by others, like Project Streamline. But they continue. And funders have more power, so the fix should start with them.

There are certainly opportunities for some funders to just do away with pointless complications that don’t provide them with any real value (a point I’ll touch on in a future post – but let’s just agree now that font requirements are probably over the top). However, there are also opportunities for most funders to do a better job of setting grantees’ expectations about their processes and requirements.

Imagine if Travelocity had appended a note to “your credit card is about to be charged” that said something to the effect of, “Hey, we’re about to sell you a flight with connections that normal mortals in their seventh decade shouldn’t attempt, during winter, in New England.” My mom would have still purchased a flight, but she would have asked a few more questions and probably ended up with a different one. The site would have earned her undying trust.

Or for funders: “Our typical process involves a letter of inquiry, a conversation or two with a program officer, and a final application. Sometimes it involves a few revisions as we work with you to create a strong proposal. Because we really value data for our decision making, we may ask you to collect quite a bit of it – please ask us about that as part of our conversation. Oh, and by the way, the typical application process takes our grantees about 40 hours to complete.”

Why not? Isn’t the potential opening to build trust and better mutual understanding worth it?


Kevin Bolduc is Vice President – Assessment Tools at CEP


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