Reason And Emotion In Grant Writing: An Observation

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    On June 18 & 25, Lynne deLearie wrote about “Reason and Emotion in Grant Proposals.” Coincidentally, I’ve recently been involved in some discussions in which some folks were leaning much too far in one direction or the other.

    Those conversations were prompted by what one participant reported as an interesting article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy (April 4, 2014) about “grantors acting more like investors.” An excerpt:

    “For at least a decade, movers and shakers in philanthropy have been trying to persuade donors to behave more like data-driven investors.

    But the so-called effective-philanthropy movement suffered a significant setback last month when the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, a prominent champion of the idea, announced that it was ending an eight-year, $12-million effort to get donors to rely as much on their heads as their hearts.

    After this year, it is dropping support for groups like Charity Navigator, GiveWell, and GuideStar that provide publicly-accessible information about the financial performance and social impact of nonprofits. (Editor’s Note: The previous sentence has been revised to more precisely describe the initiative.) [The Foundation, however] is continuing to fund groups that provide research on philanthropic strategies that produce measurable results.

    The decision pleases some critics worried that philanthropy has become too heavily focused on short-term measurements at the expense of worthy efforts that may not bear results for years.”
    ……….

    That excerpt has a few points made which are not as I have come to know them – the first being the relatively short time span cited by the writer of “at least a decade” of the philanthropic community working to convince donors to be more data-driven. (Head over heart.)

    The head part of the dichotomy was in place over four decades ago, in 1971, when I began my career in non-profit fund-raising. I believe those contrasting approaches to what prompts donors to give their money had a head-related history long before my time. (Flexner/Carnegie and Rockefeller/General Education Board, as prime examples.)

    Fast-forwarding to the 90s, I really saw the head rearing itself when the tech bubble was at its peak, and those tech billionaires greatly influenced the head, not only for reasons of giving, but as well bringing their entrepreneurship methods of making millions into non-profit board rooms – expecting, even demanding, that those non-profits operate in the same bean-counting manner as their Silicon Valley businesses.

    Most of our local foundations, for the most part, still operated mainly by the heart, though some were beginning to weigh in on how to use financial ratios as units of measurement to gauge the sustainability of non-profits.

    Thus, the worthless and harmful self-proclaimed arbiters of the worth of non-profits were created – such as CharityNavigator. (Interesting how those self-appointed judges of non-profits had no similar evaluations made on their own effectiveness.)

    I also believe that the Chronicle writer ascribed too much worth to Hewlett’s decision to end an eight-year funding program. Over my long career, I could count on one hand the number of foundations granting for more that five years.

    As well, what I interpret as conflicting are statements that Hewlett was ending grants to charity evaluators whose mission was head-based, but that Hewlett would continue to fund groups that provide those very same head-based outcomes. So, I do not see Hewlett’s action as a trend, rather than a grant program simply reaching the end of the line.

    The argument which we continually make regarding head and heart giving differences implies – indeed asserts – that they are somehow far apart.

    For the most part, I do not think they can be all one or all the other. It’s mostly a blend of head and heart. It must be, to some degree.

    Few, if any, major granting foundations would make feel-good grants which had little or no operational or outcome sense. Conversely, they would not be inspired to give money to the best constructed, rational, proposal which did not excite or move the heart.

    But, there are some caveats.

    The granting foundation Program Officer does indeed have a heart. She or he could really care about your institution, but the money they help give away is not theirs. Except in the case of a tightly controlled family foundation, those people are stewards of other people’s money.

    Stewards must, to a great extent, base their gift recommendations on logic and the value proposition placed before them. They are going to feel less comfortable making a judgment call from the heart, and are more likely to feel compelled to rely upon the reassurance of sound numbers. Further up the line, when there are volunteer review and distribution committees, heart-giving could indeed hold sway.

    But, let’s not get too heart conscious when dealing (solely or mostly) with the Program Officer “gatekeeper,” whose very job depends on much more than gut instinct and having a heart.

    So, carefully crafting proposals with the “right” blend is the challenge, and we more likely will know the correct weighting of head and heart when we know our prospects.

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