Friends and Enemies

by | Mar 1, 2021 | ShiftHappens

Every year, we receive many more applications than we can fund. While we value your work, we regret to inform you that we are unable to fund your application at this time, but wish you the very best in the future.” 

Anyone who has experience in seeking grant funding has likely received many variations on the above. While these standard responses are true, I worry that philanthropy is missing a huge opportunity by offering this kind of pat, impersonal declination. To illustrate this, permit me to offer an anecdote from my days as a monk. 

One of my roles was to travel to monasteries around the globe and help leaders navigate the friction of personality dynamics, leadership styles, and community cohesion. There was a community leader that I deeply respected who was by far my superior. In fact in my early days he was my mentor. He took me under his wing and for 5 years I served under his leadership. Despite his wisdom, an increasing number of monks were choosing to leave his monastery. When he asked for guidance, I was hesitant to offer my perspective for fear of offending him. I offered some kind of tepid, noncommittal statement, to which he said something I’ll never forget:

“Don’t be my enemy by being my friend.” 

To truly be in community and relationship, we have to be willing to be honest and open with our feedback. If we think about this through the lens of the “Radical Candor” movement, we have to care personally enough to offer feedback directly.

Philanthropy has so much to learn from this truth. 

Our advisor community declines far more applications than we fund; last year, over 4,000 alone. Communicating with these hopeful changemakers is one of the least-valued yet most important aspects of philanthropic leadership. It is as important of a service as anything else that we do. Yes, this is time-consuming; but if we choose to think about it as another chance to help change the world, perhaps we can find the resources to offer in-depth feedback that will help applicants successfully secure funding next time around. 

Recently, our team of volunteer grant advisors declined an application with the following note: 

“While we appreciate the focus on gender-based violence, our team was not able to get a clear understanding on the direction of your project, why giving tablets would help women fight gender-based violence, and how this would stop perpetrators of violence. Your application also lacked information on what trainings will be done, who will conduct the series of trainings, and how the trainings will impact the issue. Lastly, our review found contradictions in your responses about partnerships with other organizations and also had concerns about your budget. We are rooting for you, and value what you bring to the world! Thank you for who you are and how much you care.”

To which the applicant responded:

“I applied for your grant and I didn’t get funding but you gave me something more than the grant, feedback – you really taught me a life lesson. Thank you so much… you’re one intervention that comes back to you with feedback that will make you grow.”

When even those applicants you cannot fund feel supported, it is a sign that you are doing this important work right.