Lessons from Grantmakers on When Projects Flounder

What did grantmakers who contributed to this guide most commonly wish they could go back and do over? Almost all of them expressed regrets about due diligence — which would have enabled them to steer away from trouble, or to be better prepared for it if they were still committed to the grant.

  • Testing hypotheses.
    Faced with a large grant that he knew would be fairly high-risk, one grantmaker later regretted not getting enough input from experts outside his foundation. "I should have done much more testing of the hypothesis, and asked many more people how they thought this would work."
  • Probing for commitment.
    In a few Cases, programs flagged when they were assigned to junior staff by top leadership of the grantee organization. This turned out not to be a Case of delegation, but a marginalizing of the program. "It got handed off to someone for whom it wasn't really a priority, and they were overworked," explained one grantmaker about how a program of critical importance to her foundation was orphaned by more than one grantee organization.
  • Investigating the company they keep.
    One grantmaker would have been more alert to strategy conflicts if she had "done more digging into [the grantee's] institutional partners, their advisors. But I didn't have the eyes and ears to follow through."
  • Keeping their enthusiasm in check.
    None of the grantmakers confessed to being enthralled by charismatic grantseekers, but a couple suspect they got carried away with appealing ideas that deserved harder scrutiny. "He was personally very appealing," one grantmaker said of a later-troubling grantseeker, "yet he was not really charismatic to my way of thinking. Instead, I was swept away by the idea [of web-based services]. I was swept away by the times."
  • Staying in closer touch.
    After recounting a wayward grantee's transgressions in diverting grant money and not filing reports, one grantmaker took some of the blame: "It was poor practice for us. I was really at fault for not going over there [after reports were not forthcoming] and checking into things directly."
  • Proceeding with caution on business development.
    Two troubled grants floundered in part when the grantees wanted to convert their nonprofit programs into proprietary businesses, which called for an assessment not only of how the mission would fare, but of how the business would fare. Grantmakers who felt competent to assess a nonprofit's finances felt they got in over their heads when it came to judging market demand, balancing debt and equity, and keeping up with fast-changing markets.
  • Arranging institutional marriages can be tricky.
    Because the funder's vantage point allows them the distance and perspective from which to see like-minded nonprofits toiling in solitude, they are often eager to press collaboration on grantees. But if they don't support a period of thoughtful exploration by the potential collaborators, the result can be a contrived and unsustainable partnership that satisfies the grantmaker but doesn't advance important work.

Takeaways are critical, bite-sized resources either excerpted from our guides or written by GrantCraft using the guide's research data or themes post-publication. Attribution is given if the takeaway is a quotation.

This takeaway was derived from When Projects Flounder.