10 boring, predictable responses often made by enablers of crappy funding practices

[An adorable raccoon, their head resting on their paw, which is resting on a tree trunk. This raccoon has nothing to do with this blog post, but the inclusion of this picture makes people more likely to click on it. Image by Chalo Garcia on Unsplash]

Hi everyone. Before we start this week’s topic, check out Memphis Music Initiative’s latest hilarious and catchy music video, “I Hope Like Hell We Get This Grant.”

Crappy Funding Practices (CFP) has been building momentum. Join in the fun on LinkedIn! This is the movement where we call out foundations publicly and by name who engage in practices that waste nonprofits’ time and energy when there are so many societal issues to tackle. Making a grantee write a quarterly report for a $2500 grant? We’re calling you out. Telling grant applicants they can’t spend more than 10% on overhead? We’re calling you out. Making grant applicants use your budget format, which is in Word? We’re calling you out.

Declaring a grant application deadline but then saying you’re only going to review the first 100 submissions? We’re calling you out and likely also bestowing upon you a Ghost Orchid Award for Rare but Super Crappy Funding Practices, which will come with press releases and probably an award ceremony where your team will be invited to dress up in evening formal wear and explain how you came up with such a clueless and heinous decision.

We can only call out stuff we know of, so if you would like to anonymously report a crappy funding practice (including if you work at a foundation and want to report on your workplace), please fill out this form. And to balance things out, we’ll also be highlighting the wonderful foundations that engage in Awesome Funding Practices, so please nominate those too. And apologies, there is a long list of submissions, and the team is trying to call out one or three funders a week at this point, so that each has enough time in the shameful spotlight; thank you for your patience.

This week’s blog post, however, is aimed less at the funders who engage in ineffective and infuriating funding practices and more at the colleagues who read these call-outs and feel the need to defend the status quo. Over the past few days, as the CFP team begins its work in earnest, we called out two foundations, which you can see on the CFP LinkedIn page. While many colleagues responded with righteous anger at the audacity of these funders, there are a few who step in and spout the same boring, predictable responses that’s been used for decades to defend funders’ and donors’ shenanigans.

So, to save us all time, I’m going to list some of the common ones I’ve gotten over the years, below; most I’ve paraphrased, but some are direct quotes. That way, when we encounter these comments in the future, we can just copy and paste our replies, or just paste in the URL to this blog post and type “See number 4” or “See numbers 3, 6, and 8” or whatever:  

1. ”It’s not my money. It’s not your money. It’s the funder/donor’s money! So they get to do what they want with it.” If you’re spouting this, you need to have a better analysis of equity and wealth. A lot of wealth, at least in the US, comes from some combination of inequitable means, including slavery, stolen Indigenous land, worker exploitation, environmental degradation, and tax avoidance. Sometimes, it may be indirectly, like someone inherited money from a relative who worked for a company that exploited workers and retired through stock options. The point is, if someone’s wealth is accumulated through inequitable means, then it’s NOT their money. Please read The Whiteness of Wealth and other works on this topic before you continue spewing this nonsense.

2. “What, you expect funders to give out money without doing their due diligence like a bunch of wild animals?!” Due diligence is great, but it can be done without all the time-wasting nonsense that many funders inflict upon nonprofits. For instance, as I’ve said many times now, no funder needs their own unique snowflake grant proposal. Funders can literally just accept grant proposal packages that nonprofits have already prepared for other funders. It’s all the same information. There, the funders fulfilled their due diligence, but it’s just not in a time-consuming snowflake format catered to their whims. No funder needs a snowflake financial or programmatic reports either; they can just accept annual reports and general financial reports. Stop using “due diligence” as an excuse to perpetuate annoying and harmful practices.  

3. ”But what you’re complaining about is standard practice! Most or all foundations require this! What’s the issue?” The fact that a crappy practice has become so common that it is the standard IS the issue! “That’s the way it’s always done” has been used throughout history to keep ineffective and inequitable systems in place, such as health insurance being tied to employment in the US. (And also very annoying ones such as the embarrassing gaps in the toilet stalls in public restrooms in the US). Sure, many funders over the years have engaged in so many insipid practices that these practices are taken as standard, or even “best,” practices. But that does not make them OK. We need to stop thinking something is OK because it’s common.

4. “Any competent nonprofit/fundraiser/grantwriter should be able to meet all those requirements made by the funder.” Just because something CAN be done, doesn’t mean it SHOULD be. Didn’t we learn this lesson from Jurassic Park?! We all have limited time, and we need to make good use of it. Nonprofits have important work to do, and they should be doing it. Helping people is a much better use of time than spending hours catering to some funders’ nonsensical whims and ridiculous requirements. Also, consider that smaller organizations led by marginalized communities don’t have the same resources as bigger, white-led orgs, so it will take them significantly more time.  

5. “If you stop whining and complaining and instead put up with all these terrible practices right now for these small grants, maybe it’ll lead to bigger grants later!” There is definitely a pattern of some of the smallest grants being some of the most onerous and burdensome. Putting up with them just rewards and reinforces their awfulness, which perpetuates the pattern. And without feedback and pushback, if these funders ever decide to give bigger grants, they’re likely just going to scale up their crappiness. Plus, nonprofits need to get out of this mindset of only caring out funding for their own missions. If a grant process is burdensome, it affects the entire sector and thousands of missions, and we all need to care, not just focused on protecting our org’s interest.

6. “An attitude like yours will not get you very far with funders.” Oh yeah? Well a FACE like yours will not—You know what, let me start over. I got this response on LinkedIn last week, and my eyes rolled so hard I think they got stuck there during a whole episode of Star Trek Picard. This philosophy that we have to have the right “attitude” of gratefulness and compliance in order to get funding to do our work is gross. Nonprofits and funders and donors need to be working as partners to make the world better, not reinforce shitty power dynamics and hierarchy. And who says this “attitude” of honest, assertive truth-telling hasn’t gotten nonprofits very far with funders? Not all funders are fragile baby birds who need to be swaddled in soft cloth and talked to in a gentle voice. Many are also equally frustrated with existing ineffective philanthropic practices and are actively pushing to change them too, and they appreciate the honesty.

7. “Nonprofits are not serving their Cause if they are condemning the very businesses, foundations and individuals who support them”: No, nonprofits are serving their community when they speak up against things that waste their time and energy, things that make it harder for them to do their job, which affects the people they serve. Also, it seems defenders of the status quo love using words like “condemn” and “vilify” when people are criticizing those with resources and power. Giving feedback, even if strongly worded, about behaviors, processes, and decisions is not condemning or vilifying anyone. Let’s remind ourselves that to challenge inequitable power structures and the people who wield them to perpetuate harm to communities is precisely what many of us and our organizations set out to do.

8. “To say that a small grant from a small foundation or business isn’t worth the trouble to provide the documents that every nonprofit should have handy is an insult to all donors, not just foundations.” Oh no, we’re so sorry these foundations and donors are offended! Small grants can be extremely helpful, and small donations are great and when feasible it’s far better to have tons of small donations than a few giant ones. Horrible funding practices are horrible regardless of grant amount or foundation size. But at some point, nonprofits have to calculate how much time they’re spending to fill out these applications, even if it’s just to compile a bunch of documents that the “nonprofit should have handy,” and when it costs $5,000 in staff time to get a $1,000 grant, yeah that’s just terrible nonprofit math. And if some funders or donors feel insulted if we say so, they need to get over it.

9. “It takes so much privilege to call out funders. Not everyone can do it.” This is a response I got a while ago after naming and shaming a funder, and it’s confusing. Yes, it’s true that because of power dynamics, not everyone can call out funders without jeopardizing their job, reputation, funding for their orgs, programming for their community, etc. We understand. Which is why those of us who have the privilege and can, should (Didn’t we learn this lesson from Spider-Man?!”) And that is also why mechanisms like Crappy Funding Practices are put into place, so that those who can’t be as vocal can still participate by reporting these terrible practices. What is the problem here?

10. “This [calling out of funder] is kind of troll-like and adds no value. Maybe funders will listen if you were nicer.” No. Decades of asking funders nicely through countless articles and discussions has often not worked, which is why we still see the same crappy practices over and over. This is not to say there are no amazing funders who are incredibly helpful. There are. The ones who genuinely follow the tenets of Trust-Based Philanthropy, for example. But overall, nonprofits are very tired of always being expected to be nice and docile and settling for “thank you for your feedback” as a response and hoping that eventually, in some distant, magical future, funders who are egregious in their toxic practices will have an epiphany. The communities we serve cannot afford for us to continue to be nice and wait for change.

I’ll stop here, because ten is a nice round number. But there are many other common responses, including “11. Small grants still make a difference, so just put up with the crap!” and “12. Vu, why are you bullying foundations, you meanie?! Didn’t your mother teach you not to pick on powerful and well-resourced institutions?!”

So yeah, there will be more calling out. LOTS MORE! If you don’t want your foundation to be publicly shamed, please check this list and make sure you’re not doing these things, and listen to your grantees when they give you feedback.

Crappy Funding Practices will continue doing its work. And whenever we call a funder out and you feel the urge to respond, please reflect on whether your comment will add anything of value, or whether you’re just regurgitating the same boring, predictable arguments in defense of the status quo.

Because if you are, get your tuxedo or cocktail dress ready, because you may just find yourself publicly bestowed the Sad Unicorn Award for Enabling Crappy Funding Practices.