• Melinda Steffy

"Brutally Honest" Grantmaking

Nonprofit AF’s ongoing “…if Nonprofits Were Brutally Honest with Funders” series makes me laugh and cringe in equal measures.


The latest post on grant reports is gold.


Like many forms of humor, the posts are funny because they’re TRUE. As anyone who has done any amount of grant-writing will tell you, the process is time-consuming and frustrating and frequently absurd.


Recently, I was working on a couple of grants for a client that were due around the same time. They both had similar focus areas and ended up being about the same total word count. But one, for a small one-time gift, required 14 extremely detailed questions, each with a maximum of 150-400 words. The other, for a large multi-year gift, was an open-ended “send us 3 pages of narrative.”


Wanna guess which one was more work?


I have seen various regional efforts to create common application forms, or databases to allow consistent reporting – but if all funders don’t use them, it’s still just more work on the nonprofit side.


Funders often ask questions about “best practices” and “sustainability.” But many grant-making processes themselves still seem tailored for funder convenience, or homogenization of data, rather than what’s actually best for the nonprofits they're intended to support.


As Nonprofit AF points out, a simple solution is to rely on materials nonprofits already have.


  • Let nonprofits send multi-page narratives, rather than parse ideas out into ultra-specific questions with limited word counts. Funders can outline their priorities and metrics up front, without requiring 1:1 responses to each point. Nonprofits, then, could reuse big blocks of language and spend a lot less time re-writing every single application. (Please, no more “In 300 words, describe how your organization promotes DEI within programs, staff, board, and volunteers.” Just say DEI is a priority and let the organization figure out how best to weave it in.)

  • Use nonprofits’ existing budget and financial documents, rather than needing to fill in funder-specific forms. Although the intent might be for funders to have consistent comparison points, in real life nonprofits are not apples-to-apples. Nonprofits’ own documents will give a better picture of what they actually prioritize and how they allocate resources to achieve their missions.

  • Allow nonprofits to send an existing one-pager or brochure or webpage that describes their mission and programs instead of re-writing it, or submit an annual report instead of a customized grant report. These are all beneficial materials for nonprofits to develop anyway, and can be used in all sorts of contexts.

  • With that, provide funding to cover marketing costs, so that organizations can afford to develop quality materials and regularly update them. THIS is a “best practice” worth encouraging. Good materials support the whole of an organization – they aid in clear communications and trust-building with constituents and partners, and help cultivate/steward donors to sustain an organization’s overall fundraising efforts.


All of this would shift grant-making to be about story-telling and relationship-building, rather than transactional form-filling. It doesn't clear up the deep structural problems or troubling power dynamics underlying funder-nonprofit relationships, but it's a step in the right direction and would at least reduce nonprofit eye-rolling and hair-tearing.


Even in small ways, let's reinvent what’s possible, rather than maintain an uncomfortable status quo. (#LifeMantra)


large stacks of papers
less clutter, more storytelling

P.S. With appreciation to Nonprofit AF and many others working on systems change within philanthropy. I’m not saying anything that hasn’t already been said. Repeatedly. For a long time. Just adding my voice to the cacophony.