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Gauging Foundations

Legal Counsel for Philanthropy and the Nonprofit Sector

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Gauging Foundations


This article, by Ken Hoffman, originally appeared in Third Sector on June 10, 1999.

In the darker recesses of your fundraiser's soul, are you as embarrassed as I am at the awful truth of our attitude towards foundations and trusts? We love them when they give us money; we don't, when they don't. Take heart. If you are a charity fundraiser, then, like Shaw's Alfred P. Doolittle, you can't afford morals, guv'nor.

But we need to know what the foundations think of us. Here is an easy guide. Without any painful introspection, you can gauge exactly where you stand in the eyes of the foundations whose grants spell the difference between charitable life and death.

First level. The foundation accepts your letter of inquiry. People outside the field would be amazed how little it takes to please fundraisers. But that is because outsiders have no concept of how competitive the race is. In the USA, foundations' worst tendencies are encouraged by their regulatory body, the Internal Revenue Service. Foundations are allowed to tick a box on their annual tax returns: 'Applications not accepted; contributes only to pre-selected organizations.' This depressing phrase duly appears in the standard reference volumes for all to see. But it is not really meant seriously, it is just used to scare off the amateurs.

Second level. The foundation accepts your proposal for review. Often, you have to guess at this. One trust administrator I work with in New York State resolutely refuses to pick up the telephone until she hears who is phoning through the answering machine's speaker. I dispense with greetings and comments about the weather: I reveal - With a hint of desperation in my voice - that I represent an existing grantee.

Then, one glorious day, they invite your proposal! You know from the moment the invitation is uttered that unless fate is grossly malign you will at least be given some go-away money, if not the amount you wanted.

A big step beyond this: they don't even want a written proposal from you: 'Just talk it through with me.' I found out about that 20 years ago when I was new to development. Querying my predecessor as to where exactly she kept the copy of the $50,000 proposal for which I now had to write a report, I was told, 'Wedon't have it.' 'You didn't keep a copy?' I asked. 'We never had to write a proposal,' was the reply.

The next level of favour comes when a foundation phones to ask you to read someone else's proposal 'and just give us an opinion'. At this point, the foundation is conceding that you know more about their programme than they do. And continuing higher still, you are asked to write the foundation's own guidelines in your programme area. You are very, very near the top.

And finally, the summit. You achieve your fondest wish: the foundation makes multi-year, general support grants to your charity. They have decided that you are doing the best work possible, you know more than they do, and you should keep on doing it, without even having to submit renewal requests.

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