“The real things haven’t changed. It is still best to be honest and truthful; to make the most of what we have; to be happy with simple pleasures; and have courage when things go wrong.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.” – Oscar Wilde
Why is it so difficult to be honest with people who give us money?
One of my program staffers is struggling with a project partner. This partner did not hold up his end of the work, which affected the project and the people we serve. And when it came time for the foundation which funded the project to do a site visit, my staffer had difficulty being fully honest with the foundation program officer, even though the problems were all too clearly illustrated during the visit, and even though the problems were not our fault. We all want our programs to succeed, and to continue, even if they don’t operate under ideal circumstances, and we are loathe to admit that something didn’t work well when generous donors are in the room.
In a similar vein, I personally am excluded from conversations and meetings sometimes when my role as the director of an organization that also acts as a funder is front and center.
I find all of this deeply frustrating.
When I was cutting my teeth at my first job as an executive director, I didn’t know that my colleagues in similar positions tended to shove the dirty laundry into the closet when the funder came to town. I didn’t know that it was the norm to sugar-coat and play up strengths. I had been working in disaster relief where it was important to paint achingly honest pictures of what was going on so the world would sit up and take notice. And I carried that practice with me into my work in the arts.
Then, one day, after I’d managed to get a major foundation funder to pay attention to (and fund!) my wee arts organization for the first time ever, I got a call from my program officer (who has since become a treasured friend) who said, “I find your honesty so refreshing – and it really helps me do my job better.”
I know this is old news. And I know that many final reports now specifically ask grantees to report on what didn’t work, what happened that was unexpected, etc. but I think that often, this is the only time that we as a sector open up to talk about what didn’t work. It’s relegated to a few sentences in a long narrative and surrounded by colorful language about just how awesome the organization is, regardless of whatever hiccup we own up to.
But here’s the thing: we aren’t helping each other when we don’t talk openly and brazenly about what went wrong. When I’m not at the literal table when specific challenges are being discussed, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when I can’t affect any change. And I’m not just a funder: I’m a human being, who longs to do the right thing, to show up for my colleagues, to make an impact, and to connect with people whose passions I share. Why cut me out of the conversation? Why cut any funder out of the conversation?
I think that grantees often forget what actors often forget: that the funder, and the casting director, desperately want you to help them solve a problem. For the casting director, solving the problem means finding an actor that fits the part. For the funder, solving the problem means finding a person or a group that can help meet the mission of the foundation. No one is doing anyone any favors here: we are all helping each other do what we were founded to do. When the Cultural Council provides meaningful artistic experiences for children, we are helping the foundations who fund us meet their own missions. When a Cultural Council grantee provides free dance performances for a solid week throughout downtown Santa Cruz, those dancers are helping us meet our mission. This is a cycle of support in which all parties should be a heck of a lot more equal.
But until we own up to our shortcomings, until we freely admit that some wild thing we tried didn’t work, until we stop treating our funders like parental figures rather than partners, we’ll continue to rob each other of deeper relationships and opportunities to make great things happen.
It’s also true that we need to share with our funders when something in the grantee/grantor relationship isn’t working. Are there issues with a staff member? With the application process? Or… with a project partner who is also in a relationship with the funder? We need to be brave enough to face these issues head-on.
My program staffer is a perfect example. She’s whip smart and fearless and is circling back with the funder to have a more honest conversation about what is going on with the project. One of the reasons she feels able to do this, now that she has a little distance from the site visit, is that the funder has made a practice in engaging the staffer in meaningful conversations about the project. It is definitely a two-way street of communication and respect.
As funders, we should strive to be in the same practice of openness and willingness to talk and engage. As grantees, we should insist on being brutally honest about the work of our organizations when talking to our funders, and even use foundation program officers as sounding boards when things go awry. If we don’t do this, we all miss out on empowering and enlightening our field.