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4 things I learned about Philanthropy from grant writing

By Kim Tso, grant writer

Hi, Philanthropy! You don’t recognize me, because you never see me, but I write a lot of the proposals you read. I don’t normally call attention to myself, but I’m here, and I need to tell you that I’m exhausted. In truth, I’ve been burnt out for years. While I find satisfaction in working for great causes, organizations, and communities, working with you wears me down bit by bit.

You see, I’ve been grant writing for some of the most amazing organizations for 20 years. I’ll probably keep going for several more, because despite your repeated attempts to minimize the amount of time nonprofits spend grant writing, somehow there is just always an abundance of work.

I want you to know some of the lessons I’ve learned working with you over the years in the hopes that my toils give you some insight on what applying for funds from your foundations is like — but from the 30,000 foot view. And because my clients are primarily social, racial, economic, or environmental justice groups, folx who work in philanthropy and who care about equity and justice might want to take particular note.

Here’s what my relationship with philanthropy has taught me:

1. ‘Enough’ — good enough, have enough, done enough — is not part of philanthropy’s vocabulary.

It feels as though our big-heartedness is being used against us so that you can chalk up an accomplishment that you funded but didn’t directly achieve. We can never be enough.

Our organizations will never raise “enough” money. As a values-based economist, I’ve learned that the philanthropic system is not designed to finance even a fraction of social services needed and deliver them through the private nonprofit sector.

Instead, the philanthropic system is designed to protect and maintain concentrations of wealth through the tax code. The minimum payouts foundations make are mere pennies of that wealth, and our nonprofits are desperate enough to pursue them. In fact, we are kept desperate.

It seems that foundations expect our organizations to consistently produce impressive numbers of people served, outcomes produced, and population level gains in order to get renewal grants or new funders. Yet, we aren’t allowed to present budgets that represent the true costs/value of our work for fear of looking like our administrative or fundraising costs are too high. You always want more from us.

It’s not surprising since our economic system is wired for greed, not sufficiency, and philanthropy is greedy for results at a discounted price. Even if our organizations meet one year’s fundraising goals, you will pressure us to grow, expand, and replicate our programs before you decide we aren’t doing enough and turn to fund the next hot “innovation.”

Then there is the guilt trip we get through writing our very own needs statements. The community need is always there, so we will feel morally compelled to meet it. It feels as though our big-heartedness is being used against us so that you can chalk up an accomplishment that you funded but didn’t directly achieve. We can never be enough.

2. It is exhausting educating every potential funding prospect on our issue and community. And if our perspective is different from yours in nearly any way, we are denied funding.

We need a more efficient way to match up organizations with like-missioned funders, because your decentralized structure depletes us of energy and resources.

When I coach my clients on building relationships with funders, I have to warn them of just how much time they will spend explaining their issues and experiences to funders — whether on the phone, in an email, or in a funding application. If you work on equity or justice issues, the explanations take time and a world view rather different from philanthropy’s. It’s a lot.

And when we are not explaining directly to program officers, we are providing them explanations they can use with their board members.

I teach my graduate students that the only real fit between funders and organizations is when their theories of change match. And for organizations with issues or constituencies not well represented in the foundation world, well, finding kindred souls is harder than you think.

Sometimes I find program officers that really get it, since many program officers used to lead nonprofits themselves — but then they change jobs — and then I have to start over. (With one client, we did this process with three different program officers over three years before we even got a grant).

Or sometimes, the hold up is really a foundation trustee, and that’s someone we never get an audience with. I’ve had a couple of occasions where we didn’t know that a foundation’s trustee had a corporate interest in the opposition side of our organizing campaigns and that they were blocking funding. Persuasion was never going to work in those cases.

It’s not about individual program officers, since they really don’t have a lot of power in this system. It’s about the philanthropic system as a whole. We need a more efficient way to match up organizations with like-missioned funders, because your decentralized structure depletes us of energy and resources.

3. Our organizations get typecast.

Because funders don’t get past the need to categorize, a lot of great work goes unsupported or even dies on the vine.

I have seen too many multi-issue, intersectional programs that are truly cool, effective, and innovative not get funded, because they can’t fit inside the funder’s box of predetermined issue areas.

I’ve worked with some groups that had fabulous community-driven solutions, but their funders (new and long-time fans) couldn’t get past however the funder defined the organization’s identity in the beginning.

An organization works on housing? Well, good luck getting that grant from an environmental funder for that climate-change-induced-migration/displacement prevention program since they are not “truly” an environmental group.

Most of our grassroots groups work at the intersection of many issues, but funders’ preoccupation of slotting us into funding categories has a tendency to disqualify us. It’s like a person of multiple heritages being asked, “What are you?” and then is expected to bear the onus of summing up themselves in a way that is recognizable to the funder, however inaccurate or inauthentic.

Because funders don’t get past the need to categorize, a lot of great work goes unsupported or even dies on the vine.

4. The revolution will not be funded, but our community organizing work is heavily reliant on grant funding.

I’ve seen a lot of funders say that they are committing to equity, giving grants towards social change, investing in diversity training, and spending time working on themselves. Cool. That’s great. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath for that change to manifest.

The vast majority of my clients have been community organizing groups. All of them are 70-90% grant-funded.

That means that the on-the-ground work of social change is financed by a system that primarily gives one-year, project-based support instead of the multi-year general support grants that organizing campaigns need. Can you see how precarious our movements are?

Yes, it’s getting better among the funders already inclined to fund movement work, but as more foundations decide to commit to funding social change, we all need to see how year-to-year restricted funding as a way of financing social movements is detrimental to the cause. Philanthropy has an outsized amount of power over our budgets and the success of our efforts.

Philanthropy, you say you want social change? Then fund it like you mean it. Even foundations that don’t want to fund community organizing can still help more service-oriented organizations learn what advocacy work is allowable under the law (the wise lawyer folks at Bolder Advocacy can help you with that). Learn to fund advocacy and support your grantees when they do it. We can do it up to a limit. Help us learn where that limit is and allow us to go right up to it.

I’ve seen a lot of funders say that they are committing to equity, giving grants towards social change, investing in diversity training, and spending time working on themselves. Cool. That’s great. Forgive me if I don’t hold my breath for that change to manifest. I can’t tell if we are in a honeymoon period or on the cusp of radical transformation. I’m tired and weary, both from 2020 and 20 years of doing this work for you.

But if you really are going to change, please do it before I say I’ve had enough.

Kimberly Tso

Kimberly Tso

Kimberly Tso (she/her) is a Los Angeles-based freelance grantwriter under the name Velocity Ink, LLC. When she is not writing grant proposals, she can be found dabbling in art projects and playing Animal Crossing. You can follow her (mostly) art Instagram account or visit her 5-star Animal Crossing island at DA-7668-1086-4906. Besides those, she doesn’t really have social media accounts for you to follow and is super-okay with that.

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