Vulnerability as Strength – Deepening Relationships with Funders

Revealing vulnerabilities about your organization or project in a proposal can feel risky. But remember, reviewers and program officers are people too. A foundation program officer once told me “What we know about trust and relationships is rooted in transparency. And when you don't have that or don't share a little bit of yourself in a relationship, you won't increase closeness, you'll increase distance.” Sound familiar?

How much do you reveal about your organization in a grant proposal? Do you “play it safe” and stick to the minimum requirements?
Proposal reviewers will feel like a trusted friend if they read a proposal that goes beyond honesty to transparency and even vulnerability. When you expose more about your organization or project than required, it reveals your organization's personality, culture, and style. Once you articulate vulnerability, it provides an opening to show what you are doing to address it.
The program officer gave an example. If you have a deficit or are recovering from mistakes, you have two choices. Pretend nobody will notice, or communicate your organizational strengths by highlighting how you are addressing your weaknesses or problems. “Turn weaknesses into strengths,” he advised.
We know that fundraising, even from institutional donors, is about relationships. “Treat institutional donors like your major donors. They're people too.” the program officer said.
I have been on the reviewer side too. It is refreshing to read those who let their guard down a bit and show some personality. I feel like I am reading a letter from a friend, not just dry facts. Or worse, rosy copy that feels like a “hard sell”.
I sometimes advise clients to take this approach, though some are reluctant. After all, it is their organization that would be taking what feels like a risk, not me. But other clients do.
A small client in a vulnerable urban neighborhood asked a community foundation to fund a new security system after a significant break-in and theft. One application question was “What will happen if we don't fund you?” I wrote “We will continue to lose sleep, worrying about more break-ins.” I also wrote “One can argue we should have installed these locks long before now.” They got the grant.
Another client had a project to develop an app for smart phones for fourth grade science students to collect species data on field trips. The project was moving slowly with little progress. All the usual excuses applied. We could have resubmitted the same application with the same goals and reported generic delays. The organization needed to articulate more authentically what was going on. I pushed the director to dive deeper into why the project stalled. She told me the process of developing the app forced the staff to rethink why and how they did things the way they did. They needed to redesign their data collection processes and examine assumptions about how kids learn. They needed more classroom teachers involved so they could ensure the app would be useful to the teachers and their students. Though they did not complete the tasks they said they would, they showed how they had made progress. They got repeat grants from several foundations and a state agency for this proposal.
This example also illustrates something funders want to know: What are you learning? The aforementioned program officer stressed this. How much do you reveal about your internal processes, show how you work, and what and how you are learning?
How have you used, or might use, vulnerability in your proposals to strengthen relationships with funders?

Ellen Gugel, GPC, is an independent grant consultant in Massachusetts since 2008 when she started Grants & More


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