Is Anybody There? Does Anybody Care?

The title of this post is borrowed from a song in the musical 1776, in which George Washington repeatedly writes the Continental Congress, requesting badly needed assistance, only to be met with evasive responses. The lines were called to mind by the experience one of my colleagues had with approximately thirty foundations when he sought support for a project to explore the basic question: “What is Philanthropy?” The responses he received revealed foundations failing—sometimes miserably—at one of their most fundamental tasks: that of responding to proposals.

My colleague, Dr. Salvatore Alaimo, is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public, Nonprofit, and Health Administration at Grand Valley State University. Dr. Alaimo, who is affiliated with GVSU’s Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy, teaches several undergraduate and graduate classes on nonprofit management. In the course of his teaching, he repeatedly encountered a paradox: although nonprofit organizations rise or fall on their philanthropic support, few people connected with them truly understand the mechanism of generosity. He decided to ask that most basic question—what is philanthropy?—and to seek answers through the creation of a documentary on the subject. Specifically, he hoped his film would enhance understanding of philanthropy as a concept, and illuminate the roles that philanthropy plays in American culture and society. His goal was to produce a documentary worthy of film festivals and public television broadcasts, and to use it in both K-12 and higher education classrooms to inspire young people to discuss, think critically, and to voluntarily engage in giving. I have read Dr. Alaimo’s draft documentary script and it truly is a thought-provoking exploration of the complex—and sometimes contradictory—roles that philanthropy plays in American society.

Dr. Alaimo recognized that he would need funding from foundations and corporations in order to produce “What is Philanthropy?” He was confident of success because he was proposing to examine the core business of foundations and corporate giving programs. Moreover, he knew how to go about seeking funds. Using Foundation Center resources, he identified a total of approximately thirty foundations and corporate giving programs that stated an interest in philanthropy, philanthropy education, issues related to social justice, and/or documentaries. Just as he advises his students, Dr. Alaimo made certain that each proposal he submitted was tailored to the specific interests of the foundation receiving it. He knew, of course, that he would receive many refusals, but he was sure that—win or lose—his proposals would receive a thorough and fair hearing. He was equally confident that a few of his proposals would be supported, hopefully enough to cover the costs of his film.

Reasonable though Dr. Alaimo’s expectations were, he was soon disabused of them. The problems began immediately, when he encountered the applications. Foundation application processes have now, almost universally, migrated online. He soon discovered that most online forms were created with projects other than documentaries in mind, so they featured categories and line items that were irrelevant (but nonetheless mandatory to fill in), and also failed to include applicable categories and line items. In such cases, Dr. Alaimo attempted to telephone the foundation and seek the advice of a program officer, but he soon discovered that this was pointless. Program officers were hardly ever available, and only rarely would one return his call. For the vast majority of the thirty foundations, there was simply no way to bridge the gulf between a distinctive proposal, and a generic application form, leaving no choice but to send in a form inappropriately filled out, which led, inevitably, to a letter of rejection.

Adding insult to injury, these letters were just as boilerplate as the forms that had precipitated them. They referred to Dr. Alaimo’s “initiative,” or “project,” or “program,” never to a documentary film. They declined interest because the subject of the documentary was outside of their focus areas, even though the proposal was sent only to those foundations that specifically listed philanthropy, philanthropy education, issues related to social justice, and/or documentaries as an area of interest. Clearly, the automated systems of application and response were designed specifically to build a firewall between applicants and program officers, to make certain that program officers would never have to perform the onerous tasks of reading proposals, writing personalized letters of rejection, or offering assistance to applicants.

This mechanistic approach descended into low comedy when Dr. Alaimo applied for support to a large, national brand-name retailer. Once again, their online form was inappropriate to a request for a documentary, and once again, it proved impossible to contact a program officer, so it was necessary, once again, to send in a proposal that was not properly filled out. The retailer’s response rejected the funding “opportunity,” but wished Dr. Alaimo “success in securing support for your festival.” He wrote back, explaining that he had requested support for the production of a documentary, not for a film festival, and, in light of this fact, he requested a reconsideration of their decision. The retailer responded with the following “clarification”: “…it was suppose [sic] to say festivities. We wish you success in securing support for your festivities.” Dr. Alaimo patiently responded yet again, explaining that he was seeking support for a documentary film, not for unspecified “festivities.” Finally, the retailer sent a completely generic letter of decline, which did not mention “festival” or “festivities” but did not mention “documentary” or “film” either.

So, Dr. Alaimo—and countless others—are forced to apply on automatic systems that do not fit their proposals, are not allowed access to human assistance, and receive one-size-fits-all rejections that seem to be the closest thing to a relevant answer in the automated decline menu. In the case of the retailer, the “festival” response was probably chosen because Dr. Alaimo asked for assistance in making a film, and some films are presented in film festivals.

Any process has its fair share of nonsense, and over the years people grow inured to it, especially if, at the end of the nonsense, the system delivers all—or at least some—of what they have requested. For Dr. Alaimo, however, there was no such consolation. His thirty carefully crafted proposals, sent only to those funders that stated interest in the topic, yielded precisely zero grants. That seems somewhat strange in itself, and it raises a further question: if a professor of nonprofit studies who does everything right and asks for support for a documentary that fits thirty foundations’ stated guidelines gets shut out, just what chance do people with less training have in their applications?

After all of this discouragement, one might think that Dr. Alaimo would quit in frustration. Instead, he devised a novel strategy for raising funds for his documentary: he would ask program officers for personal contributions. He reasoned that program officers may well have been drawn to foundation work by an innate sense of generosity. Moreover, they are presumably committed to the well-being of the field in which they work; as such they may nurture a personal interest in a film exploring the meaning of philanthropy, and be willing to be personally supportive even if their foundation would not provide institutional support. So off went two thousand solicitations, addressed directly to the pertinent program officer, each clearly explaining that this was not a request to the foundation, but rather a personal solicitation of the program officer.

Nearly all of these requests elicited precisely the same robotic responses as had the earlier proposal, for the foundations obviously did not have an entry in their decline menu for responding to a personal request to a program officer. Only two program officers out of the two thousand actually read the request, understood that it was a personal solicitation, and sent a personal reply. One said “no” and demanded to be removed from Dr. Alaimo’s list. The other scolded him for having the temerity to ask a program officer for personal support. Approximately fifty of the two thousand apparently didn’t read the message carefully and responded as if it were an application to their foundation instead of to them personally.

What does Dr. Alaimo’s experience teach us about the state of the two thousand program officers in his sample? First, it seems safe to conclude that they are unaccustomed to being personally solicited, and therefore unable to respond appropriately to such a request. Second, the personal nature of the request did not elicit, excepting only two cases, a personal response. Third, while we don’t know how personally generous these two thousand program officers might be (for all we know, they may give thousands of dollars to their faith community, their alma mater, or other charitable organizations), we can say that they are professionally parsimonious, unwilling to make even a token investment in a project that would help the world to better understand what they do for a living.

Dr. Alaimo’s experience cannot, of course, be generalized across the entire foundation field. In my years of experience as a member of the Advisory Board of the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), I have met many foundation executives and program officers who are passionate about improving their foundation’s processes and responsiveness. In The Grantmaking School, which I founded, I have encountered hundreds of program officers who hold themselves to high standards of professionalism, and who seek constant improvement in the performance of their responsibilities. I truly believe that the educational programs of CEP, The Grantmaking School, and other infrastructure organizations are, slowly but surely, making foundation philanthropy better.

Yet Dr. Alaimo’s experiences cannot be dismissed as merely bad luck in encountering outliers in the foundation field. Among the thirty foundations that he solicited for support, and the two thousand program officers from whom he requested personal contributions, large majorities were unresponsive, failed to thoroughly read the proposal, arbitrarily declined the proposal, and seemed only weakly connected to the field of grantmaking.

The late Joe Paterno was fond of saying “You are either getting better, or you are getting worse.” Dr. Alaimo’s experience suggests that, for all of the improvement wrought in the field by CEP, The Grantmaking School, and other organizations, some program officers are getting worse. This makes the case for redoubled support for educational and training programs, for people and fields do not get better by accident, but rather by deliberate and sustained efforts. I am confident that the thoughtful nucleus of the field will continue to expand, and excellence will become more common. But for now, the question with which this post began still applies to far too many foundations: “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?”


Joel Orosz, PhD, is the Distinguished Professor of Philanthropic Studies at The Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University.

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