A Mismatched Strategy Leads to Floundering A Q&A with a senior grantmaker

GRANTMAKER: Senior grantmaker at a medium-sized foundation interested in promoting the development of college-level multicultural curricula.

GRANTEE: Dean of a small but prestigious liberal arts college who was more interested in the foundation’s money than in its multicultural agenda.

THE SITUATION: The floundering took a subtle form — the resistance of the dean to the program guidelines. He wouldn’t withdraw the application, but he wasn’t earnestly committed to it. The grantmaker wanted to take a chance with him nonetheless, because this prestigious college could influence others. The result was a near stalemate.

Q. Although the grantseeker here knew about your guidelines, he submitted a thinly veiled proposal for general operating support. How did you try to redirect him?

A. We had a meeting in which I said, “You’ll note that our guidelines are to fund knowledge-building as it advances a multicultural perspective.” We talked through very extensively what this might mean, and he said ‘Yes, yes’ and would nod his head — “this is true.” But already I had concerns, and I could see from his responses that he was not thinking in these terms. There was some foreboding on my part. I decided I had to tiptoe into this. So I said, “Let’s start with a planning grant.”

Q. You then got a proposal for a planning grant that displayed the same indifference to your agenda as the original application had done. How did you restate your position without seeming too heavy-handed?

A. Well, I decided to get my boss and a colleague to meet with us to drive home that this was serious. We said, “This was a great first step, but more needs to be done to have this considered.” We gave him names of individual scholars and centers from whom he could get advice. But my heart sank at this meeting. I could tell that he felt this was hurdle jumping and unnecessary and undignified. After two or three months, I got a call from an associate director, asking when they should submit the final proposal for long-term funding. This was an alarm bell. It meant they weren’t preparing to do real planning work.

Q. Wouldn’t a reasonable grantmaker give up here?

A. I needed this institution to take this seriously. It would give legitimacy and national visibility to the issues and send a signal to others. I was convinced of the importance of my goals, so it didn’t throw me that this dean didn’t get it. I was utterly convinced why this grant supported our mission.

Q. How did you get a breakthrough?

A. I called the dean and said, “Let’s sit down and talk this through.” He didn’t show up, but sent a recently appointed associate dean. I began to get pleasantly surprised. She showed a real appetite and energy for this. I had a toe hold now ... I had sliding goals. I may be losing the dean, but I’ve got an individual with a fresh perspective who has real eagerness for this.

Q. If this college was so critical, why entrust your goals to this junior player?

A. I’ve learned along the way that for grantmaking in innovation, you often need unofficial, non-principal actors in an institution to be involved. I depend a lot on my ear for energy, character, and ability to find them. I look for evidence of sincere interest, commitment, and dedication. You can read that. You can make mistakes — so where I don’t feel it, I double-check. But then I don’t stick around.