Foundations, how aggravating is your grantmaking process? Use this checklist to find out!

[Image description: A from-the-waist-up image of a red plastic robot-looking toy. Update: It may be a Blockhead from Gumby. It has a square head, two googly round eyes that are looking down, a round yellow nose, and a yellow line shaped into a frown. The robot has two arms raised up to the sides of its head. The background is grayish blue.]
As we roll into 2017, there have been lots of articles about how philanthropy must adapt, including my post urging funders to increase payout and fund advocacy efforts, as well as this piece on moving away from “charity” toward “justice.” These conversations are critical and we must keep having them. While we figure that stuff out, though, let’s take care of a few logistical things foundations do that make us nonprofits want to roll up a printed-out copy of our tax filings and beat ourselves unconscious.

So, I asked the NWB Facebook community to name the things funders do that get on people’s nerves. I got over 350 comments. I’ve condensed them into the Funding Logistics Aggravation, Incomprehensibility, and Laughability (FLAIL) Index. Here is a list of things that make us want to punch a wall, scratch our heads in bewilderment, or crack up laughing. Or drink. [Update: The FLAIL Index is now called the FLAIL Scale, and was revised on 1-21-17]

Funders: Please go through this list one item at a time and tally up your FLAIL points. Actually, use this Excel file, since it will automatically add up your score. Then have a conversation with your team about what things you can do to improve your score.

Nonprofits: Think of a grant proposal you’re working on, and go through this list. Whenever an item is true for this grant, take a shot of leftover gala wine.

Disclaimer: This is the very rough beta version, written while watching Iron Chef on Netflix. It is not comprehensive, has no scientific validity, and it will likely change when I have time to edit. Please consult with your doctor before using this checklist.

General stuff

  1. You give people less than 3 weeks to respond to an RFP (+5 points). It takes a while to be strategic, especially if you want strong collaborations.
  2. You don’t list your grantees and how much you give them on your website, so we have no idea how much to ask for (+3 points). Help us out so we don’t over-ask or under-ask.
  3. You don’t list clear info about whether you are currently accepting or not accepting applications (+5 points).
  4. You are not clear on what you will fund and what you won’t (+3 points). Have a list of what you do fund, and what you do NOT fund.
  5. You don’t fund existing programs (+5 points). Really, it needs to be “innovative”? How about you fund programs that “work”?
  6. You don’t fund “staff salaries.” (+5 points). Really? Who do you even think is running the programs, much les writing this grant proposal?!
  7. You mandate in-person attendance at info sessions (+3 points). Info sessions are helpful, but mandating them screws over nonprofits that may have heard about the RFP too late.
  8. Your LOI is more than 2 pages (+3 points). It’s an LOI; it’s supposed to be short; that’s the whole points of the LOI.
  9. Your LOI requires attachments (+5 points). If you require attachments, it’s now an application, no longer an LOI.
  10. You process takes longer than it takes to conceive and give birth to a baby (+5 points). If your LOI plus proposal plus site visit takes longer than for the average couple to make a human being, it’s too long.
  11. You ask for an entirely new proposal for renewal grants (+5 points). This org has been with you for a year or two or three. Why ask them to jump through the hoops again? Just ask for an update.
  12. You don’t note mandatory meetings upfront in the application, and then require them later (+5 points). If you require anything of grantees, make sure it’s in the RFP. We nonprofits don’t like surprises, except surprise donations.
  13. You make your proposal due during the holidays (+5 points). If you make anything due the day after Thanksgiving, or the week between Christmas and New Year, some of us will be making and burning effigies of you.

Application format

  1. You don’t accept emailed application (+5 points).
  2. You ask for the board chair’s signature, or board members’ signature (+5 points). Some of us have board chairs who are difficult to track down. I promise, no one is going around pretending to be us and writing grant proposals on our behalf.
  3. You don’t accept electronic signature (+5 points)
  4. You require anything to be notarized (+5 points). Notarized? That’s hilarious!
  5. You require anything to be faxed (+5 points). Fax is dead. If you require it, you should change the language of your RFP: “Thou hast 501c3 certification from the IRS, dost thou not? Prithee fax this parchment. Forsooth, it is verily of great import.”
  6. Your form is in Word and is not well-formatted, so typing in it looks like this Org:___Association of Unicorns for Equity____ (+5 points)
  7. You use forms that are not fillable, so we have to recreate them, or else find a typewriter (+5 points)
  8. You send paper applications and require nonprofits to fill them out (+5 points). We don’t have typewriters! Verily!
  9. You require ridiculous stuff like “a stamp of the common seal of the organization” (+5 points)
  10. You don’t allow for double-sided printing (+3 points).
  11. You ask people to send multiple printed copies of the application (+5 points). Tree killer!
  12. You require more than login and password to get into your online portal: (+1 points). Please don’t require an organization code, a login, a password, a phone verification, and an iris scan.
  13. Your online portal only works with one browser (+3 points).
  14. You don’t allow for autosave (+5 points). Yes, we know to type our answers in another document and then paste them over. Still, we can lose all that hard pasting work if something happens.
  15. You don’t offer to show all the questions up front (+5 points). It is irritating to have to fill out each page before being able to see the next questions.
  16. You don’t allow uploads. Everything has to be entered in one-by-one (+5 points). Please don’t make us enter each board member’s name one by one when we can just upload one document.
  17. You have severe character limits (+5 points) It takes us way longer to edit something down than for you to spend an additional minute reading. And then sometimes we get penalized for not being clear enough in our 250-character answer about how we plan to undo systemic racism.
  18. Your character limits make no sense (+5 points) “Please describe your mision, vision, strategic plan in 500 characters.” “Do you have a line of credit? 4,000 characters.”
  19. You don’t warn about character limits upfront, so we type some stuff in and then have to revise it (+5 points)
  20. You don’t have a live-character-counter built in, so it ends up being endles copying and pasting and checking and repasting (+5 points)
  21. You ask for multiple delivery methods: “Please email the narrative, fax us a copy of your 501c3 letter, upload your budget to this online portal, and send 18 copies of your entire application by mail” (+5 points)

Narrative and attachments

  1. You ask for extensive info for small amounts of money (10-page narrative for 5K?) (+5 points)
  2. You ask the same questions three or four different times (+5 points). “What are your goals?” “What does it look like if you are succesful?” “What do you hope to achieve with this funding?” Argh!!
  3. You ask for cover letter, and an Executive Summary, and a narrative (+3 points)
  4. You ask for excessive contact or personal information about board members (+5 points). You only really need the contact info of the board chair and treasurer. Don’t ask for everyone’s addresses, phone numbers, emails, birthdays, blood types, etc.
  5. You ask for major donors’ personal information (+5 points). Sometimes donors just don’t want you to know who they are
  6. You ask for volunteers’ personal information (+5 points). A funder asked for volunteers’ names, addresses, and phone numbers. That’s unnecessary and kind of creepy.
  7. You are not thoughtful about asking for personal information such as about sexual orientation of board, staff, clients (+5 points). I get that it’s important to be sure there is diversity on boards and staff, but do it thoughtfully, and take culture into consideration.
  8. You force people to have logic models (+5 points). Some logic models are great. But some people are not familiar with them, and you can get the same information with a question like, “What are your program activities, outcomes, and long-term results?”
  9. You require videos or other gimmicks (+5 points). It takes me three hours to do a 1-minute video because I tend to freak out on camera.


  1. You force applicants to fill out your own budget form (+10). We all have our own budget formats, and we spend way too much time translating it across 20 different funders who each has a different budget template. Please stop the madness and just accept our format!
  2. You have a budget form in word (+5 points). If you force us to fill out your budget template, please use Excel so we can use formulas!
  3. You ask for a 5-year budget (+5 points). Considering the volatility of this sector, many of us can barely project one year out. We’ll project 3 or 5 years out if you ask, but just know that it’ll likely change.
  4. You punish nonprofits for having too much in reserve (+5 points)
  5. You punish nonprofits for having too little in reserve (+5 points)
  6. You ask for things you refuse to help pay for (+5 points). If you don’t pay for “overhead,” then don’t ask for evaluation data or audits or program reports, because those things are all “overhead.”
  7. You ask the sustainability question (+5 points). As I wrote earlier, the answer to the question “How will you fund this program when our support runs out” will always be a euphemism for “We will leave you alone and bother other people,” so there’s no points asking it.
  8. You ask “how will you fund this project if we don’t fund you?” (+3 points). Same, we’ll bother other people.
  9. You restrict admin expenses, even if we don’t ask you specifically to pay for it (+5 points). If we are not asking you for funding for admin expenses, it’s aggravating when we still have to conform to your indirect expense guidelines.
  10. You ask for a list all other funders. Top 3 to 5, fine, but many of us have dozens (+3)
  11. You ask for full printed-out copies of 990s. Those things can be looked up on Foundation Center’s 990 Finder or Guidestar. (+5)
  12. You require more than 5 attachments (+5)


  1. You don’t assign anyone to field questions and provide support (+5 points)
  1. You don’t offer feedback on rejected applications (+5 points). We understand if you get 800 LOIs and can’t offer feedback to each one, but full proposals and 12 attachments?
  2. You leave vague voicemail messages and then are hard to reach (+3 points)
  3. You don’t respond at all to applicants’ questions (+5 points)
  4. You don’t confirm if an application is received (+3 points)
  5. You don’t email to announce changes of grantmaking processes (+3 points). It’s helpful to email your grantees changes, rather than expect everyone to find out by looking on your website. We have dozens of funders and can’t keep checking all the time.
  6. You require excessive reports (+5 points). Do you really need quarterly reports for a 5K grant?
  7. You force nonprofits to conform to your calendar (+3 points). I had a funder give a grant in October, nine months after the application was due, then expected a report in December to close out the calendar year.
  8. You don’t seek feedback on your application process (+5 points)

Redemption points (subtract these points from your total):

  1. You accept applications sent to other funders (+20)
  2. You accept LOIs and applications in different formats (+5)
  3. You provide technical support to organizations who request it (+5)
  4. You accept reports written to other funders (+10)
  5. You convene grantees to share lessons learned as part of evaluation (+5)
  6. You’ve test-ran your application process by pretending to be an applicant and actually filling it out in its entirety, including creating the budget and other attachments (+10)

How aggravating is your funding process?

  • You scored -60 to 0 points: You are a unicorn among funding unicorns! Thank you for making our lives easier and allowing us to focus on our work. You are brilliant, and your hair always looks great.
  • You scored 1 to 25 points: you are almost a magical unicorn. Change a few things. You can do it!
  • You scored 26 to 50 points: Your process is irritating, like getting a hangnail. Not horrible, but you can change a few things
  • You scored 51 to 75 points: Your process is painful, like that one time I got a papercut on my tongue after licking a thank-you card envelope.
  • You scored 76 to 100 points: If people had to choose between applying to your grant or getting bitten by a possum, it’s gonna be a toss-up.
  • You scored 101 to 150 points: Painful. Think “passing-a-gallstone” painful. 
  • You scored 151 to 200 points: Your process is “Getting poison ivy in the eye” horrifying. You may be driving people to leave the nonprofit sector. 
  • You scored 201 to 299 points: Your process may open a hole in the fabric of time and space and unleash the demon-god Cthulhu upon the world.

I hope that was helpful. The FLAIL Index will continue to be revised, so send in your feedback.

Meanwhile, to balance things out, next week we have a checklist of things nonprofits do that are aggravating to funders. I’m tentatively calling it the “Grantseekers Response Amaturism, Vexation, and Exasperation (GRAVE) Index.”

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