As Seen from the 52nd Floor

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on October 21st, 2011 in Articles, Thoughts & Commentary


I’ve no idea whether funders read this blog or not, but I think I might be about to find out!

It is time for nonprofits—and I’m speaking of those nonprofits that seek funding, not the nonprofits that give out the money—to “take back the night,” so to speak.  These direct service nonprofits that seek funds and in return provide a service or an opportunity– need to drive what the sector and their organizations need instead of funders deciding what needs to be done.

I’d been thinking about this for some time, mulling over the shifting strategic priorities of funders and how well—or not–those match up with the shifting priorities and needs of communities and, therefore, the shifting needs of the nonprofits serving those communities.  Thus, when I read the Monitor Institute’s report, “What’s Next for Philanthropy: Executive Summary,” it came as no surprise that the following statement jumped out at me:    “Funders give on their own timelines, often more closely correlated with arbitrary deadlines and periodic board meetings than with the realities of community needs and the shifting context of a problem.”

Their timelines, not ours.  Their needs, not ours.  Who is this all about, anyway? It is about our clients.  Those who need help with finding a job or health care or food.  Those who want to improve their language skills, reading level, appreciation of different cultures.  Those who want to bask in front of a beautiful piece of art, a clean river, a restored historic site.  We should be allowed to tell funders what it is that our research has uncovered as necessary and important to serve best our clients rather than trying to fit square pegs into round holes, something funders absolutely hate seeing applicants do.

We need to provide food for our students before we can help them get their GEDs, as it is tough to concentrate  when you’re worried about if your kids have enough to eat.  Mergers aren’t the silver bullet for all struggling organizations.  We should be allowed to determine where our organizations really need help in order to address the root(s) of our organizational challenges and problems and not merely their symptoms.  A marketing plan isn’t really going to help us if we’ve lost sight of our mission; a strategic plan right now is of no value if we don’t have sufficient funds to make payroll beyond next month.

The reality is that there comes a time when the distance between foundations/ corporate giving staff and the nonprofits on the ground becomes immense.  A time when the faint memories, for those who ever worked the “other side,” of what it was like no longer match the realities of what it is like.  And no time in my memory was this ever more true than today.  Decades ago, I heard a younger man who at the time was working for a corporate foundation say that he never allowed himself to get too far away from the other half of the philanthropic equation.  Thus, he would work for a few years in a funding organization and then he would leave and go work in a nonprofit for a few years.  And he would continually repeat that cycle.  Not too long ago, I lost track of him, but up until that time, he had stayed true to his word.  And I know he was a more effective—spending his organization’s money well and wisely—program officer as a result.

I will say of funders what I hear time and time again from executive directors in describing their boards:  they mean well.  And then the very long list of “buts” follows.  I firmly believe that funders—from program officers to grants committees to boards of directors—absolutely want to help, do “good” and contribute to making the world a better place.  But trust me, the world looks very different on the street than it does from the 52nd floor.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.