As I sit down to write my 15th Unfunded List Update, I am a little overwhelmed by the number of topics I could cover. Since 2015, I have coordinated 1,000 grant proposal reviews and the proposals covered pretty much every topic. I not only read them, but I read all of the comments from our evaluation committee. These 1,000 proposals came from all over the world and the organizations that submitted them were in different stages of development — ranging from individuals to teams with hundreds of people. I learned a lot coordinating that many grant proposal reviews. While some of the proposals have very little in common with each other, some things are universal. Three things in particular. And so, I will write about those three things.
Improving Grant Writing Skills
The first thing is that everyone who came to us for grant proposal review was looking to improve their grant writing skills. This should not surprise you, and if that were all we did here then this would not be a particularly innovative program. In fact, if you need to improve grant writing skills there are better resources out there than Unfunded List. The best grant writers I know are all members of GPA, the Grant Writers Professional Association and they offer a variety of resources for fundseekers. There are better websites to find prospects and opportunities such Instrumentl or GrantStation or Foundation Directory Online. It might surprise you to see me admit this, but please keep reading because I have two more points to make.
Addressing Unaddressed Need
The second thing is that no one writes a grant proposal without a clear purpose. Everyone who has sent us a proposal was attempting to address an unaddressed need and that need was very real and usually staring them right in the face.
Despite the fact that the world economy has created huge piles of excess wealth, it has also created huge pockets of unaddressed need. Philanthropy is an opportunity to use that excess wealth to begin to address that need. Usually, the need in question is something that neither corporations or governments are paying much attention to. As a result, the organizations trying to address these needs turn to philanthropy and are then asked to write grant proposals without understanding how these decisions are made. They need the funding so they apply.
Because the need is unaddressed, it will take more than just sharper copywriting and better prospect research for these changemakers to get their funding. They will definitely need to learn these invaluable skills if they want to be successful, but even if their proposals were perfect there would be few funders willing to consider them. Perhaps the need in question only affects a marginalized community that does not have access to boardrooms.
This should be the priority for philanthropy right now. Philanthropists looking to be relevant changemakers should spend less time on press releases and signing pledges and more time looking for unaddressed needs. These are not hard to find.
Philanthropy has been able to meet unmet needs many times before. There are major organizations, household names such as the United Way or St. Judes Hospital, that people have come to rely on. These organizations would not exist without philanthropy. Private philanthropy has played a major role in advancing civil rights, making education accessible, advancing the role of women and girls, curing polio and other diseases, while also building universities, libraries, museums, theaters, and parks. Nearly everyone benefits from philanthropy and countless communities have used philanthropy to build power. And yet…
There is a lot of FRUSTRATION with Philanthropy
The third thing that these proposals we review have in common is that, beyond the skill-building our proposal authors must do and beyond the currently unmet needs that the most righteous of our philanthropy friends are working to address, a lot of proposal writers are frustrated with philanthropy.
It is frustrating to find a grant opportunity that looks like a good fit and then spend 50 hours writing a proposal that never receives a response. It is also frustrating to identify a funder who seems like a perfect fit only to learn that this grantmaker does not accept unsolicited proposals and makes it impossible to contact them. So many of these frustrations come after much work while others are just the frustrations of the untrained.
I can envision a world of philanthropy where funders are inclusive and open-minded, where experienced program officers are members of the community they serve and are making informed decisions hand-in-hand with the talented and properly-rested-and-compensated grant writers who submit proposals for good. When I have seen philanthropy work well, it has been a partnership between grantseeker and grantmaker. The best proposals I have read were co-authored with the program officer — everyone was literally on the same page.
Unfortunately, philanthropy does not always work like that. And that is frustrating.
The most frustrated of our authors (and more than a few of our evaluators) believe that philanthropy is failing. They will use words like “traditional,” “antiquated,” or “broken” to describe it. They will say that private philanthropy only serves to protect wealth and privilege. Many of these frustrated folks are heroes in our communities. They are already doing several jobs and running their organizations and we are making them learn one more job, that of professional fundraiser. It is not fair and I do not blame them for pointing that out and thinking the system is broken.
Skill-building is no solution for burnout.
Hopefully, those frustrated with philanthropy will take time to consider that organized secular philanthropy is barely a century old. I would not say that it is broken. Broken implies that it once worked well. I would say that philanthropy is still maturing and, like many of us, has a lot to learn.
Indeed, the field of organized philanthropy is in its infancy compared to other human endeavors such as medicine, religion, art, journalism, philosophy, literature, or even capitalism and democracy. Modern psychotherapy is a few decades older and certainly it has not solved our mental health problems in that short time.
For thousands of years we knew only charity and alms and it was primarily religious communities that took responsibility for society’s needs. The first RFP was issued in the early 1900s and “charitable foundations” only became commonplace in the second half of the 20th-century. In the beginning, foundations weren’t required to give money away at all. Then, the tax code was reformed in the 1960s to require a 5% yearly distribution. The government could raise that distribution minimum or make other changes. The way that private foundations operate has been reformed by new leadership and by the tax code many times, as recently as 2018. There are several other legislative changes currently under consideration, as we covered briefly during last year’s Virtual Symposium for Inclusive Philanthropy.
For most of its history, organized philanthropy operated without accountability and decisions were made behind closed doors by the wealth holders (hoarders?) themselves. If there is anything traditional, or antiquated, or broken going on in philanthropy it is that ultra high net worth individuals are making philanthropy decisions behind closed doors without input from potential grantees. Proposal processes, while often messy and frustrating, are far more inclusive. Proposal processes that co-review with Unfunded List are even more inclusive.
It Will Take More Than Grant Proposal Reviews and Grant Writing Skills
I was born in 1982. Many of the social problems that existed when I was born have not improved in my forty years. Philanthropy has not done much to move the needle on them but neither has Government or Business. And no super heroes have come to save us. But I have seen philanthropy change more than I would have thought possible and I expect that it will change a great deal more. Notably, a lot of the people in charge right now have been in charge for a long time and someday soon younger generations with different worldviews will take over. That has already started to happen.
Philanthropy is doing more to solve (some of) these problems than ever before. Philanthropists are innovating their processes (with mixed success) and hiring professionals to guide their giving to the best organizations (that they can find). Increasingly, they are involving members of the communities served in the decision-making process. Professional philanthropy consulting is one of the fastest growing industries in the United States. Mutual Aid is operating at record high levels and there are more Giving Circles than ever before. Philanthropists are trying to do better. But many of these organizations were designed to be deliberative bodies and never intended to move rapidly.
With so many social problems left unaddressed and frustrated activists forced to learn grant writing skills in order to seek philanthropic support, perhaps expectations are too high. Philanthropy is not broken, yet we must accept that it is not capable of funding all the solutions to all the problems.
For US-based foundations, health is currently the number one issue recipient for grants. Our friends to the North, working at Canadian foundations, do not grant nearly as many health organizations in their portfolios because medical costs are covered by the Government. Philanthropists in the US are also increasingly funding efforts to decrease gun deaths, something that appalls our foundation friends down under in Australia. I recently had a chance to talk about these two issues with representatives from Canada’s Ontario Trillium Foundation and Australia’s Greater Charitable Foundation during our “Administration of Generosity” panel last month. If you have read this far into this update then I think you would enjoy watching it.
And so it is with these points in mind that I choose to highlight a few proposals and organizations from the Fall 2022 round. All of these groups were reviewed quite favorably by our evaluators. They received thorough feedback reports that included reviews from dozens of evaluators and we have been doing our best to help them incorporate these great suggestions into their future drafts and fundraising plans. We received proposals from all over the world, which presented a great opportunity for our evaluators to learn!
We can all learn a thing or two from the Canadians
Treehouse Advocacy Centre is doing tremendous work in Vancouver and came to us through an ongoing co-review partnership with SVP Vancouver. Since Canada has a national health system that provides free healthcare, the realities for advocates and funders alike are fundamentally different. If you are curious to see what a Canadian advocacy proposal looks like then Treehouse Advocacy Centre will be one of the best you ever read. Unlike most of the proposals we review, this proposal was successful but the authors took the opportunity to submit to us so they can continue to improve upon their applications and build their grant writing skills.
Treehouse Advocacy Centre
Read this for more on the differences between Canadian and US philanthropy.
A Couple Organizations Focused On Inclusion
Alzheimer’s Diversity Outreach Services
Pastor Beverly Baul of Tulsa, Oklahoma has been dealing with patients in various stages of dementia through hospice care for decades. Not only does she give sermons on Sundays and tend to the sick, but she must also write her own grants and do her own fundraising. Beverly feels called to the work of the organization she created, Alzheimer’s Diversity Outreach Services. African-Americans are two times more likely to develop late onset Alzheimer’s Disease than whites and are even less likely to have a diagnosis of their condition, which means they have less time for treatment. While there is no known cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, learning the warning signs and catching them early can make the disease more manageable for everyone affected.
Alzheimer’s Diversity Outreach Services provides Alzheimer’s patients and their families, friends and caregivers the tools and resources to cope with and combat the disease. In addition, our annual Out of Africa event in Tulsa, OK is one of the largest African-American-focused Alzheimer’s events in the nation, and has been raising money and awareness for the disease for 15 years running.
Pastor Baul came to us to learn more about fundraising and philanthropy and build grant writing skills. We are doing our best to be helpful. She has been applying to local foundations in Tulsa (there are several large ones) with limited success. You can learn more about her work by reading her proposal.
I’m From Driftwood
I’m From Driftwood is the LGBTQIA+ Story Archive. The stories on this website send a powerful message to LGBTQIA+ people everywhere: you exist, you matter, you belong. I’m From Driftwood’s collection of more than 1,400 professionally-produced videos and user-submitted written oral histories are shared freely online — giving voice to and forging connections among often marginalized or silenced people, educating people about the joys and challenges, complexities and intersectionalities of LGBTQIA+ lives, and increasing empathy in viewers. These stories spark dialogue and move people to action in their own lives and communities, including living authentically, changing discriminatory policies, and supporting LGBTQIA+ elders and youth.
This is another great proposal that was accepted and funded. The team at IFD still wanted feedback so they submitted their proposal to Unfunded List wanting to see if it properly captured the work they do in a clear, concise way so that they can repurpose it for other proposals with narrower parameters. Our evaluators agree that their archival and storytelling background translate well into their grant writing skills.