Opinion
April 24, 2015

Letters: Honest Grant Discussions Are a 2-Way Street; Plus, Praise for a Chronicle Columnist

To the Editor:

“The relationship between grantor and grantee is the single most dishonest relationship I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been a faculty member at four major universities.”

That tongue-in-cheek commentary (from a prominent grant maker and scholar) came to mind repeatedly as I read Laurie Michaels’s credible and troubling description of the layers of dishonesty surrounding grant relationships (“Let’s Stop Haggling,” Opinion, March).

It strikes me that the grantee, my usual role in the relationship, may get off a bit lightly in Ms. Michaels’s critique.

The problem that most concerns her is the grant maker’s failure to prepare for and respond to setbacks in nonprofit projects. She notes the grantee’s reluctance to discuss those challenges with grant makers. Part of that problem is a failure of courage on the part of the grant recipient.

In leading a number of nonprofit turnarounds over the past 25 years, I have several times had no ethical choice but to go to grant makers and say, “Not only are the terms of the grant in trouble but so is the organization itself.”

That’s rather bad news. Yet I have never had a grant maker pull the plug. To the contrary, some have agreed to bolster their commitments.

A second common failing on the part of grantees is a willingness to enter a conversation as supplicants, rather than as the peers and partners that Ms. Michaels recognizes us to be. Instead of presenting ourselves as offering crucial ideas and skills to the right funding partner, we tend to initiate these relationships from a self-diminished position.

Grant makers, in my experience, often contribute in two ways that Ms. Michaels doesn’t mention.

First, there is a failure to subject themselves to same quality and ethical standards — clear logic model and evaluations, transparency, inclusiveness, and so on — that they expect of grantees. That failure invites cynicism and discourages candor.

Second, foundations, in particular, too often don’t share with their grantees their own internal challenges, organizational dynamics, and imperatives, being more comfortable behind a veneer of disinterested beneficence.

This not only sets a poor precedent, but with so many issues hidden behind that veneer, it means that a grantee finds itself guessing about how to be a good partner.

As Ms. Michaels recognizes, the people and causes we serve deserve better.

William Patrick Nichols
President, Transition International
Washington

Courage and Integrity Mark Columnist

To the Editor:

Over the past several decades, American foundations have drifted ever farther from their core purpose, now imitating political kingmakers through heavy involvement in public policy, now aspiring to be hard-nosed venture capitalists by wholeheartedly importing market principles into charity.

Throughout that time, one voice — Pablo Eisenberg’s — has consistently and forcefully reminded philanthropy of its primary obligation to the poor and marginalized. That he is controversial, irritating to the powers-that-be, and able to generate a flood of angry letters to the editor (“Chronicle Columnist Doesn’t Advance Philanthropy,” March) hardly counts against him, but rather attests to his honesty, courage, and integrity.

That he is all too often a lonely voice reminds us how difficult it is to stand up against the enormous influence of concentrated wealth, even when allegedly wielded for charitable purposes.

As a fellow contributor to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, albeit from a different point on the political spectrum, I can only hope to imitate his eloquence, passion, and productivity.

That said, if there are others out there who are prepared to write about foundations as human institutions with both strengths and weaknesses, rather than as flawless expressions of beatific benevolence, I know that The Chronicle would welcome contributions.

Just know in advance that hundreds of public-affairs officers and PR agents are diligently patrolling the reputational borders of their philanthropic employers, ever sensitive to the slightest deviation from praise and adulation, and able with a few whispered words to consign one permanently to the ranks of “congenital naysayers” and “isolated cranks.”

William Schambra
Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute
Washington