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The Ethics of No

Saying no often leads to anxiety. It is a distinct refusal, and we associate it with causing disappointment. For example, how many of us look forward to disappointing our children? None of us, but we learn to ignore the consequences of our refusals (tantrums!) because saying no may keep our children safe.


Saying no is frequently appropriate in professional settings. It allows grant professionals to remain ethical and keeps our clients or organizations safe or in good standing with the community.
Code of Ethics
Have you ever been asked to submit a grant proposal to a prospective funder that you knew was not aligned with your organization or client? Perhaps the organization didn't meet the funder's eligibility criteria or didn't have the right request for the funder's priorities. Many of us have been faced with this dilemma. For consultants, it may be far easier to explain these situations to a client and say no.  For staff, that may not be a viable option (or at least an uncomfortable one).
In either case, we have professional obligations in this situation. Consider our Professional Obligations #3, #5, and #9 in the GPA Code of Ethics.
#3. Members shall avoid the appearance of any criminal offense or professional misconduct.
#5. Members shall not be associated directly or indirectly with any service, product, individuals, or organizations in a way that they know is misleading.
#9. Members shall take care to ensure that all solicitation materials are accurate and correctly reflect the organization's mission and use of solicited funds
Here's another scenario: Perhaps a grant professional has been asked to revise a program description to align better with a foundation's eligibility criteria? Executive leadership sees an opportunity to infuse dollars into the agency by temporarily adding a new target population to an ongoing program. They have no intention of continuing to serve the new population after the grant award. The revised program drifts from the organization's mission. They didn't think about the ethics or consequences of the submission and potential award.
A proposal under these circumstances is misleading. The funder would believe that the organization was committed to serving a new target population and that its mission was changing. Knowing that this was not the case, submitting a proposal could be perceived as professional misconduct.
An alarm should sound anytime you temporarily change a component of your program, approach to meet eligibility criteria, and/or budget guidelines. Saying no can be uncomfortable, but every member of GPA has the Code of Ethics to present as evidence to support their position.
Beyond Ethics
We all hope that ethics would guide everyone's actions in the grant profession and that ethics should be enough. If the Code of Ethics does not convince your client or organization's leadership to pass on a funding opportunity for which it is not an appropriate awardee, perhaps reiterating the organization's reputation will strike some sense.
Submitting a proposal that is not truly aligned with the funding announcement guidelines may negatively affect a future opportunity for support, particularly with community foundations. Program officers at local foundations may remember the application that wasn't appropriate, and it may result in doubts about the organization's leadership. Additionally, community foundations tend to collaborate, officially or informally. In my state, the Arizona Grantmakers Forum brings together funders from all sectors. I happened to witness a less formal gathering of program officers from four prestigious community foundations at lunch. When they hailed me over to their table, I was told: “You never saw us here.” Read into it and you'll understand that foundations don't work in silos. My city is not unique and meetings among funders is common.
So stay true to your ethics as a grant professional. Saying no will safeguard your reputation and that of your organization.