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It’s Fine to Embellish – Everybody Does It
Foundation Myth No. Five (of Seven) - an excerpt from Martin Teitel's new book, The Ultimate Insider's Guide to Winning Foundation Grants.
I want to say at the start that grant seekers and funders share responsibility for the variously fictional nature of some proposals. Also, in my experience the vast majority of prospective and actual grantees are honest and upstanding people. What I want to pick on here are less the people than the proposals that constitute the lingua franca of foundation funding, especially those involving new or innovative work.
One day, when I was working for a nonprofit, I sat at my desk, cold keyboard in front of me, trying to get going on a funding proposal for a new project. A board member happened by and, seeing me staring into space, asked what the trouble was. When I said I was struggling with a grant proposal, he replied, “Oh, just figure out something we’re doing, or something you can say we might be doing, or could conceivably be doing.”
He wasn’t inviting me to commit fraud; I knew that. Rather, he understood that nonprofits, especially smaller ones, have considerable trouble raising money for unproven programs. He was suggesting I apply for something that didn’t exist, without quite disclosing that fact to potential funders. As I used to say in my grant-seeking days, “If we had some ham, we could have ham and eggs – if we had some eggs.”
This problem of needing to have money in order to raise money leads grant writers to inflate if not invent program activities. Funders seem to say, “Show me what you’ve done, be concrete, and list concrete results.” At the same time they encourage grant seekers to be innovative, not to get stuck in a rut. Some funders and especially foundation board members are heard to say, “I’m tired of this same old program. How about something fresh?” This seeming whipsaw encourages grant seekers to write proposals that are vague or exaggerated or both.
Funders don’t like reading these semi-fictional masterpieces. We don’t like seeing decent people pressing against the edge of the truth like blues musicians bending a note. In the end, the problem of credibility is part of what drives funders to support the larger, safer organizations, which over time have acquired the capital to write proposals accurately describing work already under way. Thus the small, scrappy players who might be the real innovators get squeezed out.
Although I’m sure some untruths did occasionally slip past me, most overstatements and embellishments are easy to spot when you know what to look for: verbose problem statements followed by scanty descriptions of what’ll be done, forests of adjectives with comparatively few verbs, lengthy paragraphs full of vague and imprecise language, tangled nests of buzzwords, taking credit for work done by others, and an insistence that the true essence of the project cannot be measured.
My advice to grant seekers is don’t lie, don’t stretch the truth, don’t exaggerate, don’t say anything, if what you have to say is so thin a person could read a magazine through it. I’m not accusing proposal writers of being flimflammers; I’m acknowledging that many with payrolls to meet grow desperate and in the cold light of morning would be embarrassed at some of what they’ve submitted.
If you don’t want to end up looking untrustworthy, consider these admonitions. First, don’t perch on the slippery slope of honesty, feet extended, ready to push off. Almost every day I received questionable fundraising appeals from decent nonprofits: phony surveys, mass-produced envelopes designed to look urgent, calls from executive directors who said they were in the neighborhood and would like to drop by, and individuals who wanted to discuss issues and obtain my views and opinions, when in fact they were fundraising and my views were irrelevant. These are the small lies of hard-pressed, honest people trying to raise money for a good cause.
A second suggestion is to break down your work into pieces and sell each part differently. For example, you might separate work that provides direct service to affected individuals from a proposed effort that emphasizes policy change in that same area, since the strategies would be different and different funders will be attracted accordingly. This piece-by-piece approach is more work, but it lessens the temptation to explain something real and successful, then tack on something that you aren’t yet doing, making it all look like a single going concern. This hybrid approach is based on a hope the potential funder won’t notice that one piece is real and another isn’t. But most funders will notice and quite possibly worry that all the work is too fictional or speculative or even nonexistent. No grant is likely to result from a funder who questions the honesty of your proposal.
My third suggestion is that you only take credit for what your organization has really and truly achieved. A distressing trend has been for organizations to take credit for things they did with others who aren’t acknowledged. Foundations often make grants to several organizations working on a specific issue. So I was quite likely to have a pretty good idea of who did what in a given field. Claiming credit when it’s not your due erodes funder confidence nearly as fast as an embezzlement conviction.
Finally, we need to lay a substantial part of this problem at the feet of funders. I won’t take responsibility for your choice to exaggerate or be untruthful. But I know the funding community can make it hard for new small groups to emerge. We place lots of obstacles in the path of innovative or experimental projects. Many funders see their career path as resting on an endless string of undeniably successful grants: foundations end up risk averse.
Writing a perfectly authentic proposal might be difficult, but writing one that’s accurate and defendable is something good grant seekers do all the time. When Mark Twain said, “Honesty is the best policy – when there is money in it,” he could have easily been talking about foundation proposals.
Martin Teitel has worked in the world of nonprofits for 45 years, 30 of them for grant making foundations, including a 12-year stint at CEO of the Cedar Tree Foundation in Boston. Teitel has a PhD in philosophy from the Union Institute, Cincinnati, and a Masters in Social Work from San Diego State University. He is a Field Education Supervisor for the Harvard Divinity School. Follow his blog at http://saltmarshmarty.blogspot.com.
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