I know a lot of people who’re starting up new nonprofits, and most don’t have any prior experience with fundraising. That was me!, back in 2007 when I took over the Wikimedia Foundation. And so, the purpose of this post is to share some of what I learned over the past eight years, both from my own experience and from talking with other EDs and with grantmakers. I’m focusing on restricted grants here because they’re the most obvious and common funding source for nonprofits, especially in their early stages of development.
Restricted grants can be great. Grantmaking institutions fund work that’s socially important, that’s coming out of organizations that may have no other access to funding, and that is often risky or experimental. They take chances on people and organizations with good ideas, who may not yet have a track record. That’s necessary and important.
But restricted grants also pose some specific problems for the organizations seeking them. This is well understood inside nonprofitland, but isn’t immediately obvious to people who’re new to it.
Here are the five main problems with restricted grants.
Restricted grants can be administratively burdensome. At the WMF, we actively sought out restricted grants for about two years, and afterwards accepted them only rarely. We had two rules of thumb: 1) We would only seek restricted grants from organizations we knew well and trusted to be good partners with us, and 2) We would only seek restricted grants from organizations that were roughly our size (by staff headcount) or smaller. Why? Because restricted grants can be a lot of work, particularly if the two organizations aren’t well aligned.
Big institutions have a big capacity to generate process: forms to fill out, procedures to follow, hoops to jump through. They have lots of staff time for meetings and calls and email exchanges. They operate at a slower pace than smaller orgs, and their processes are often inflexible. People who work at grantmaking institutions have a responsibility to be careful with their organization’s money, and want to feel like they’re adding value to the work the nonprofit is doing. Too often, this results in nonprofits feeling burdened by expensive process as they procure and report on grants: time that you want to spend achieving your mission, instead risks getting eaten up by grantmakers’ administrative requirements.
Restricted grants risk overwriting the nonprofit’s priorities with the grantmakers’ priorities. At the WMF, we didn’t accept grants for things we weren’t planning to do anyway. Every year we developed our plan, and then we would (sometimes, with funders we trusted) seek funding for specific components of it. With funders we trusted, we were happy to get their input on our priorities and our plans for executing them. But we weren’t interested in advancing grantmakers’ goals, except insofar as they overlapped with ours.
Too often, especially with young or small non-profits, I see the opposite.
If an organization is cash-strapped, all money looks good. But it’s not. Here’s a crude example. Let’s say the WMF knows it needs to focus its energy on mobile, and a funder is interested in creating physical spaces for Wikipedians to get together F2F for editing parties. In that context, agreeing with a funder to take money for the set-up of editing cafes would pose a distraction from the mobile work the WMF would need to be doing. An organization’s capacity and energies are always limited, and even grants that fully fund a new activity are necessarily drawing on executive and managerial attention, as well as the organization’s support functions (human resources, accounting, admin, legal, PR). If what a restricted grant funds isn’t a near-perfect fit with what the organization hopes to accomplish regardless of the funding, you risk your organization getting pulled off-track.
Restricted grants pull focus from core work. Most grantmakers want their money to accomplish something new. They’re inclined to see their grants as seed money, funding experiments and new activity. Most successful nonprofits though, have important core work that needs to get done. At the WMF for example that core work was the maintenance and continued availability of Wikipedia, the website, which meant stuff like hosting costs, costs of the Ops team, site security work and performance optimization, and lawyers to defend against censorship.
Because restricted grants are often aimed at funding new activity, nonprofits that depend on them are incentivized to continually launch new activities, and to abandon or only weakly support the ones that already exist. They develop a bias towards fragmentation, churn and divergence, at the expense of focus and excellence. An organization that funds itself solely or mainly through restricted grants risks starving its core.
Restricted grants pull the attention of the executive director. I am constantly recommending this excellent article by the nonprofit strategy consultancy Bridgespan, published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Its point is that the most effective and fastest-growing nonprofits focus their fundraising efforts on a single type of funder (e.g., crowdfunding, or foundations, or major donors). That’s counter-intuitive because most people reflexively assume that diversification=good: stable, low-risk, prudent. Those people, though, are wrong. What works for e.g. retirement savings, is not the same as what works for nonprofit revenue strategy.
Why? Because organizations need to focus: they can’t be good at everything, and that’s as true when it comes to fundraising as it is with everything else. It’s also true for the executive director. An executive director whose organization is dependent on restricted grants will find him or herself focused on grantmaking institutions, which generally means attending conferences, serving on juries and publicly positioning him or herself as a thought leader in the space in which they work. That’s not necessarily the best use of the ED’s time.
Restricted grants are typically more waterfall than agile. Here’s how grants typically work. The nonprofit writes up a proposal that presumes it understands what it wants to do and how it will do it. It includes a goal statement, a scope statement, usually some kind of theory of change, a set of deliverables, a budget, timeline, and measures of success. There is some back-and-forth with the funder, which may take a few weeks or many months, and once the proposal is approved, funding is released. By the time the project starts, it may be as much as an entire year since it was first conceived. As the plan is executed the organization will learn new things, and it’s often not clear how what’s been learned can or should affect the plan, or who has the ability to make or approve changes to it.
This is how we used to do software development and in a worst-case scenario it led to death march projects building products that nobody ended up wanting. That’s why we shifted from waterfall to agile: because you get a better, more-wanted product, faster and cheaper. It probably makes sense for grantmaking institutions to adapt their processes similarly, but I’m not aware of any who have yet done that. I don’t think it would be easy, or obvious, how to do it.
Upshot: If you’re a new nonprofit considering funding yourself via restricted grants, here’s my advice. Pick your funders carefully. Focus on ones whose goals have a large overlap with your own, and whose processes seem lightweight and smart. Aim to work with people who are willing to trust you, and who are careful with your time. Don’t look to foundations to set your priorities: figure out what you want to do, and then try to find a grantmaker who wants to support it.