Funders, do you have Main Character Syndrome and are engaging in crappy funding practices? We’re coming for you!

[Image description: A duck, photoshopped onto a background that looks like they’re stepping out from behind a sheet of wrinkled purple paper, kind of like how someone would step onto the stage from behind the curtains. Image by NoName_13 on Pixabay]

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on how no funder deserves their own unique snowflake financial or outcomes report from grantees, and that they should just accept nonprofits’ annual report and comprehensive financial statements. A colleague pointed out that these burdensome and nonsensical requirements are a result of many funders having a “Main Character Syndrome” (MCS).

MCS, according to my quick consultation with fellow cool young people, is basically where someone thinks they are the main character in the universe, and that everyone else is just a support character in their fascinating and enthralling story. And they act like it. This phenomenon helps to explain many things that happen in our sector, such as the egotistical executive director who needs to take credit for everything. Or the board member/donor who demands to be treated like royalty and who gets offended at the slightest injury to their image or sensibilities.

In funders Main Character Syndrome may explain a lot of the challenges we’ve been dealing with. For instance, if you DON’T need to feel like the special main protagonist, then why not just accept a grant application that has already been written? Why does it need to conform to your whims? “Please answer this same question that you answer all the time in other grant applications, but for us, because we are as unique and beautiful and rare as the ghost orchid, you must use fewer than 500 characters.”

Over the years we’ve been talking about a common grant application. Several places have tried to implement it, and it has mostly failed. In one case, the funders could not agree to a common set of questions. In another case, the funders agreed to the common application, with the caveat that each funder could also require multiple additional unique attachments, which rendered the whole exercise pointless.

Here, I’ve created a special tool for funders. I’m calling it the Main Character Role Actualization in Philanthropy (MCRAP) checklist. It’s like the MCAT, which is the test people take on their journey to becoming in a doctor in the US, but instead of measuring people’s preparedness to go to medical school to be a physician and heal people, the MCRAP measures foundations’ egotistical nature and proclivities for wasting nonprofits’ time and preventing them from doing their work.

If your foundation scores high on the MCRAP, it’s not entirely your fault. The field has conditioned you to be this way. Because of the power imbalance between funders and nonprofits, you are constantly treated like the main character—who is always smarter, more charismatic, more talented, and 27% more attractive than support characters. Why wouldn’t you act like the main character when everyone else is acting like you are?

Also, because of that same power dynamics, nonprofit colleagues are seldom honest with you. Which means you rarely get feedback on how your main-character tendencies are annoying and harmful. Think of powerful people who are surrounded by yes-people. Like a billionaire who buys a successful social media company, who is orbited by staff and advisors too terrified to tell him that renaming the social media platform to sound like a porn site is a bad idea. In similar veins, nonprofits are too terrified to tell you that many, or most, of your foundation’s practices, as well as funders’ collective shenanigans in general (such as “strategic philanthropy”), are silly if not toxic.

Of course, not all funders are like this. There are great funder allies and who are just as frustrated as nonprofit leaders are by all of these time-wasting and toxic philanthropic practices. Thank you for working on the inside to change things.

Still, Main Character Syndrome among funders is definitely an issue that is preventing nonprofits, as well as funders, from being as effective as they can be. I hope funders will start to be more aware of it, be honest with themselves about how it manifests, solicit feedback from their grantees about how they can be better partners, and act to minimize the need to be the main character in the epic ongoing saga of equity and justice.

You can start immediately by just accepting grant applications nonprofits have already written, as well as accepting annual reports, 990s, audit reports, etc. instead of requiring your own unique snowflake reports. And you can also stop asking embarrassing questions like “How will you publicize our support and publicly recognize the foundation if you were to receive this grant?”

However, the sector has been getting tired of waiting for funders to recognize their tendencies and take initiative to change. That’s why I’ve been involved in a movement to publicly call out bad funding practices. For the past several months, colleagues across the sector (including several cool funders) and in multiple countries, have been organizing under the name Crappy Funding Practices (Here’s the LinkedIn page; sign up). After a period of planning, we’re ready to be way more active in calling out toxic funder behaviors.

If you know a funder who does any of these crappy practices, please fill out this form. A team of volunteers will get on it and will do our best to call this funder out publicly and BY NAME across different platforms, while you remain anonymous. Funders who are wasting nonprofits’ time will be called out more aggressively, moving forward. Spread the message to your colleagues! Think of this group like the Nonprofit Avengers! (Also, we may be working on giving awards to funders who have the worst funding practices. I’m going to propose calling the most “prestigious” one the “Ghost Orchid Award for Crappiest Funder of the Year.”)

With everything going on in the world, with the myriad serious problems facing our communities, nonprofits simply do not have time or energy to waste. We should be focused on doing our work, not putting up with the nonsensical whims of funders with Main Character Syndrome. We need funders who understand their roles as true partners, and true partners don’t engage in crappy funding practices.

Please continue calling your elected officials and demanding a permanent ceasefire.