Answers on grant proposals if nonprofits were brutally honest, part 3

[Image description: A meerkat, looking directly into the camera with their deep, soulful eyes. They look cute, but tired, like they’ve written a lot of grant proposals and are so tired of the BSing.]

Hi everyone, a quick note before today’s post: If you haven’t written an anonymous review of a foundation on GrantAdvisor in a while, please take a moment to do so. GA has changed our rule so that all reviews are now public (instead of having to reach a threshold of five different reviews before a foundation’s profile goes live). You can save your colleagues from wasting their time and energy by writing helpful, honest reviews. Thank you for helping to advance our sector.


Grant proposals, am I right? They’re so much fun. Like flossing. Or sticking one’s hand in the garbage disposal to remove a fork. We nonprofit professionals have gotten so used to writing proposals that we forget most of the time we’re actually just putting down what we think funders want to hear while suppressing our real thoughts. Imagine if we actually said what’s on our mind. Here, in the 3rd part of the series, we do just that (Read Part 1 and Part 2, which cover classic questions like “How will you sustain this program after our support runs out?”).

  1. What is the timeline for your project? The needs are so urgent that we want this work to be launched right away. In fact, we’ve been providing some services without much resources, which has been burning out our team. However, since you and other funders take longer than it takes for the average couple to create a human baby to make a decision, our official starting date is whenever you send us money. Please send us money.
  2. Please describe your program: Ok, we could do that. We can copy and paste the program description as we always do. But why don’t you come and visit? Seriously, Josh, you live five minutes away from our program site. I saw you jogging past it once on a Friday morning! Come and visit. No one is going to bite you. You can understand the program a lot better and get to know the amazing kids we’re trying to help. Visit the program, and then send money so we can keep it going.
  3. Please attach and summarize your strategic plan: Our strategic “plan” is explained in detail in Attachment R. It calls for increasing operations, expanding to new geographic areas, tripling the number of people served by year three, scaling globally by year four, and ending racism and poverty by year five. This “plan” will change based on the needs of communities, the whims of funders, the value of the Yen, and the alignments of the planets. Actually, this “plan” is mainly wishful thinking. We can’t plan more than a few months in advance because we have no funding stability, thanks to one-year grants like this one. We will consider it a success if we can simply make every payroll on time for the next six months. Please send money.
  4. How do you align with our values? Your values are so vague and full of jargon that we’re not even sure if YOU align with them. For instance, one of your values is “Collaboration,” yet you still force organizations to compete for grants. But more importantly, why do we need to align with your values? Why don’t YOU align with OUR values for once? We’re actually on the ground doing the work so our values would be more relevant, wouldn’t you agree? Please just send the money already.
  5. Explain your theory of change: We believe that helping low-income children have access to healthy food during the summer will lead to their academic excellence, which will lead to them getting jobs and becoming productive members of society, which will reduce crime rates and the burden on taxpayers, which is the answer you’re looking for. In reality, we help kids because that’s the $&!@#% right thing to do as decent human beings. Please send money.
  6. How will you monitor and report on this grant’s progress? Because of understaffing, we will continue to run programs while barely holding on by a thread. Then, right before the grant report is due, we will freak out. This will be followed by a round of blame as to who should have been tracking the progress of this grant. Ultimately, we will settle on the decision that Emily, the program director, will do the final report, which includes scrambling to gather evaluation data. We will get it done on time, but barely. We will then make a commitment as a team to talk about improving our grant reporting process so that this does not happen again, but let’s face it, it will always happen again. Please send money so we can buy Emily a gift certificate for a massage so she won’t quit.
  7. If your budget is more than 50% staffing-related costs, please explain why: All of our programs are run by human beings. We once tried using the arcane arts to summon demons from the Dark World to do our bidding and run programs in order to reduce staffing costs. But that didn’t work. It might have been because we couldn’t afford authentic supplies. Please send money so we can pay our staff, or else fund the required mirrors, candles, and the skull of a male goat that was killed by lightning.
  8. How are you working on systems change? We’re not. None of you would give sufficient funding for us to hire advocacy/policy staff. We know that advocacy is important, so once a while we sign on to letters written by our partner organizations around important topics. We also take turns attending rallies. It was Kevin’s turn this year, but his son got pink eye so he had to pick him up from school. Please send money so can do our direct service work, and then even more money so we can do systems change work too. 
  9. Summarize your team’s qualification to implement this project: Everyone working on this is qualified. What do you think, we’re just going to take in random people from the streets? Of course not; we save that for the board. The problem is not whether the team’s qualified, but how we can keep qualified people, considering the pathetic rates we pay them. Some have several degrees and/or decades of experience, and barely make minimum wage. Some qualify for our services. Please send money so we can pay our team better. 
  10. Tell us about your board and staff diversity: Our diversity sucks and we have been desperately trying to recruit people. But we don’t really know how, and we are so terrified now of making a mistake and being called out that we’re just hoping if we mumble “diversity” and “equity” enough times, diverse candidates will magically appear. Your foundation also sucks when it comes to diversity, so it looks like we are in the same boat. Please send money so we can pay a consultant of color to help us, which we think is what we’re supposed to do next.
  11. How do you determine that your clients are low-income? Sometimes we can’t tell, so we rely on information like free and reduced lunch or percentage of median income. And sometimes we just know, by looking into people’s eyes, that they have faced so much systemic injustice and have gone through more trauma than anyone should have to endure. And there is only so much we can do for them. We go to sleep at night wishing we had more time and resources to help more people. We could, if you gave more than 5% of your funds out each year instead of just letting all that money sit there while people suffer. Please increase your annual payout and send money.
  12. Will the foundation receive any goods or services in exchange for this grant? We don’t know how to answer this. Would you like a mug or something? Wait, would that be bribery? Why are you asking this question?! What answer do you want?! Please stop playing mind games and just send money!
  13. What are the unanticipated outcomes associated with this program? We don’t know. They are unanticipated. Please send money.
  14. What feedback do you have for our grantmaking process? It took us 30 hours to finish this proposal, including chasing down the board chair for her signature, which you needed for some bizarre reason. With over 200 organizations applying, and only 10 being funded, you are wasting about 5,000 hours of people’s time across the sector and probably driving dozens of people to leave the field and move into real estate. Just accept proposals we wrote for other foundations. It’s the exact same information. We have more important things to do. Just send money so we can do those things.

Thanks everyone who helped contribute to this post. We should all strive to be more honest with our funding partners, because honesty is the foundation of strong working relationships. Or whatever. Please check with a funder you trust before attempting any of these answers in real life.

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