Communication is the key to successful grant projects—and funding

In my opinion, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of dialogue between grantmakers and grantees about philanthropy and the topic of grantsmanship, which is unfortunate. Engaging in this kind of dialog can improve the entire grant-seeking process and help each party achieve its goals more effectively.

I recently read the keynote address of Edward Skloot, the executive director of the Surdna Foundation, at the annual conference of the Minnesota Council on Foundations. Titled “Is Distinguished Philanthropy Still Possible?,” Skloot’s speech discusses the responsibilities of grantmakers in an age when funding is becoming much more competitive and more difficult to carry out. His comments provide the basis for some meaningful and enlightening discussions between the two groups.

One of the first issues he addresses is the difference between charity and philanthropy. Both have ancient roots, yet each is quite different. He uses an example of a soup kitchen to illustrate this difference. Running a soup kitchen and feeding people is charity, finding out why people need a soup kitchen and addressing the root cause of the problem is philanthropy. Skloot further explains that philanthropy affects whole systems, unlike the small acts of generosity associated with charity.

Is your school district looking at grants as an act of charity or as philanthropy? In other words, are you developing projects that attack the root causes of what is weak in education and what contributes to your students’ poor performance? Do you carefully consider the impact that technologies will have to address the root causes, rather than selecting equipment that seems desirable because it is “new”?

I am always encouraged when I see districts submitting proposals for projects that clearly align with their strategic plan and that have been carefully developed, planned, and visualized as they are implemented. In today’s era of grantsmanship, these are the projects that are most likely to win considerable funding—and also the most likely to have a lasting impact.

Skloot also discusses the need for improved communication and collaboration between grantees and funders. I couldn’t agree more. One of the biggest mistakes I think many grantees (and grantors, too, in some cases) make is to accept a grant award without a full understanding of the relationship that accompanies it. Thus, we see situations where grantees change project activities without notifying the funder, spend grant funds on unallowable items, or—worse yet—use funds to pay for district expenses unrelated to the grant. Both grantor and grantee should treat each other with respect and remember there is much more to the relationship than just the receipt of money.

Skloot suggests that funders should be builders and sharers of knowledge. He says, “Imagine if funders and grantees made it their point to capture and disseminate all the useful information they commission, collect, or compile.” Just think of how effective we could be if we were made aware of funded projects and their outcomes and utilized this information in our own districts. Even small changes could have significant impact. Skloot mentions that the McKnight Foundation, in conjunction with 11 other philanthropic organizations, is beginning a central repository and information delivery system in Minnesota. Perhaps we should encourage similar projects in our own states.

Sadly, I am now seeing fewer RFPs (requests for proposals) that include a section in the proposal called “Dissemination.” If we are to address this issue, perhaps we should make it a priority to disseminate the results of our projects, regardless of whether this is required. Look for opportunities to publicize the results locally and, if possible, at the state or national level. Add the information to your district’s web site so others can find out about your grant-funded projects. If it is feasible, take advantage of an opportunity to present at a conference. If your funders don’t already do this, suggest that they include information about the projects they fund on their web sites.

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